The Trolling Fields

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The Alannah & Madeline Foundation’s senior advisor for advocacy & cybersafety, Jeremy Blackman, recently gave a keynote address to Rotary International on online bullying. Here is what he had to say.



When reason isn’t rewarded

I am a keen observer of online interactions. Much of my role at the Alannah & Madeline Foundation is to better understand what motivates people on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

It can be depressing to delve into, let me tell you. Stranger versus stranger; personal threats; mob tactics. It can be scary to see this loneliness and frustration turn to anger. Especially when all those people are hidden behind a thick veil of anonymity and their actions are mostly consequence free.

Social media platforms have a way of taking empathy levels to zero; of polarising people; of reducing every response to a binary: Yes/No, Like/Dislike, UpVote/DownVote, Happy/Sad, Go/No Go, Love/Hate. When you’re forced to communicate in sound bites, reason is not rewarded. Sound bites are just that, bites.

It doesn’t take much time to find this online rage.

Why the online rage?

A recent Taylor Swift music video – ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ – currently has just shy of a billion views on YouTube. 7 million people have given it the ‘thumbs up’, 1 million the ‘thumbs down’. It has in excess of 700,000 comments. Much profanity. Much judgment. It’s no wonder that people misunderstand each other, annoy each other, pick fights and start flame wars.

In a recent survey of about 900 parents, run by ReachOut, parents ranked social media and technology use by their children as a bigger concern than drugs, alcohol and smoking.

With all this hostility, rage and fear, it can be easy to miss all the constructive collaboration that’s happening on social media.

Social media can be a powerful force for progression and peacebuilding

In online contexts where respect is valued and rewarded, much can be gained.

As Jaron Lanier, the American computer philosophy writer put it: “…it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximise value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.”

But in the mass collective online, faces can be lost, people powerless. The whole world is visible, but too far removed from the personal.

At the Foundation, I work to design prevention and intervention measures to address cyberbullying and online hate, especially as they relate to young people.

At this point, it’s important to distinguish between cyberbullying, and online hate such as trolling.

Cyber bully or hate-filled troll?

Bullying is a relationship-based problem. When cyberbullying happens, it is usually between people that are known to each other. In fact, cyberbullying is but one aspect of bullying, and in around 90% of cases, cyberbullying is happening concurrently with offline bullying. Wherever there is cyberbullying, chances are that face-to-face bullying is happening too.

Trolling and other forms of cyber-hate generally occur between strangers, and often the perpetrator is hiding behind an anonymous account. While both share the three key features of bullying – repetition, intent to harm and power imbalance – their treatments are different.

Bullying must be addressed in the context of the relationship – any form of bullying is the symptom of a broken relationship.

However, both cyberbullying and cyber-hate can be addressed by improving the culture of the social context in which they occur. If you work on improving the culture of a social context, you start to address the issue of bullying at large.

By framing bullying, in any form, as unacceptable, you empower individuals to call it out when they see it or experience it. You give them confidence that they will be supported and that the issue will be resolved.

But introducing an isolated measure into a toxic culture will most likely make the situation worse, because it doesn’t target the prevailing attitudes.

Look at the culture

I recently gave evidence to a Senate hearing on the adequacy of existing laws on cyberbullying. What I was keen to emphasise was that the issue of cyberbullying sat right alongside ‘traditional’ forms of bullying, and that social norms within peer groups were a powerful factor. You have to address the cultures where young people spend most of their time – schools, workplaces, sporting clubs. Specific laws on bullying and cyberbullying that work to discourage and punish may play an important part, but they are not a panacea, and they shouldn’t be the starting place for a solution.

Bullying and cyberbullying are significant problems in Australia

The Foundation recently commissioned consulting firm PwC to undertake research into the economic cost of bullying in Australian schools. What was most disturbing in the findings is how the psychological and economic costs of bullying can last well into adulthood. The trauma that occurs as a consequence of bullying is felt both immediately at schools and long after students have complete school.

Bullying costs our economy billions

The PwC analysis identified that the costs associated with bullying total $2.4 billion, incurred while the children are in school and for 20 years after school completion.

One of the Foundation’s most successful school initiatives – the eSmart Framework – takes a holistic approach to the issue of bullying. It helps schools lay the groundwork for a positive culture, by developing policies and processes that live and breathe. It helps schools foster pro-social behaviours by embedding social/emotional learning in the curriculum. It does this by engaging with all the stakeholders in the school community – it is not a responsibility of just the teachers, or just the students, or just the parents. It is owned by all.

eSmart is in over 2,300 schools across Australia, and its companion program eSmart Libraries is in over 75 per cent of public libraries nationwide.

Bullying in the workplace

In 2017, I also had the privilege of working with McDonald’s Australia on piloting eSmart Workplaces, and this program is now being extended to RMIT and the Richmond Football Club.

We recognise that the social context is all. Whatever the social norms are within an organisation, and whatever is regarded as acceptable, that is what defines and perpetuates the behaviour. 1 in 4 young people have experienced bullying, one in five cyberbullying. In a recent study by ACMA, most teenagers said that cyberbullying was an expected part of being on social media. It was something you had to accept.

Our extensive experience with schools has shown time and time again that it requires a wholehearted commitment from senior leadership, and the buy-in from teachers, students and parents. In short, it must be a priority within the organisation, and must be resourced.

I’m sure most, if not all of you, have spent time in a workplace where toxic, anti-social and exclusive behaviour is the norm. Remember how powerless that can feel. It is no different in other contexts, such as schools and sporting clubs.

And bullying online

Cyberbullying is a facet of face-to-face bullying.

Addressing cyberbullying requires the building of pro-social behaviours and norms in online contexts in just the same way as they are developed in schools. But supportive communities offline, such as in schools and workplaces, influence the way people interact online.

Remember, this is not about extending love to all the haters online and hoping to get love in return. This is about cultivating strong values of respect between peers, so that their social world is supportive and inclusive, and that becomes their norm, both online and off.

Clay Shirky said: “One of the biggest changes in our society is the shift from prevention to reaction…”. eSmart is founded on the core principles of prevention and culture change. It may be a little harder, take a little longer, but the benefits are systemic, and the effects transcend online and offline contexts.

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