Saturday, 10 January 2015

We need to talk about cyber-bullying


With my Facebook posts reaching an average of about 2 million Facebook news feeds per week these days, you can imagine that I'm beginning to get quite a few instances of negative feedback.

Of course people are free to disagree with me. As much as I appreciate all of the messages of support I get, one of the great joys is debating with people who can explain differing viewpoints without lacing their comments with personal attacks and obvious logical fallacies (as rare as these people seem to be on the right-wing-authoritarian segment of the political compass).

Discourse and debate are hugely valuable and worthwhile activities if conducted in a mutually respectful manner.


As a result of my commitment to open discourse I hardly ever delete comments or ban people from my page because I so firmly believe that free debate is vital to a functioning democracy. Once we begin deleting points of view that we disagree with, we're just constructing hollow echo chambers for the repetition of our own ideas

                   
"You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits."

One of the most hilarious criticisms I've ever received came from a guy who posted a comment directly onto my wall saying nothing more than "You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits".

The more I repeated this phrase in my head, the funnier it seemed. It's hilarious that someone typed such a grammatically flawed and entirely self-defeating statement. Then I thought of someone actually saying those words to my face, which made me laugh even more.

I was chuckling to myself as I wrote my riposte, which in retrospect was a bit glib and not all that funny. The important thing is that I wasn't angry, I was retorting in jest at such an audacious display of incoherence, and doing it with a smile on my face.

After writing my reply I thought no more of it and went off to chat to a friend on Skype for an hour or so before returning to my computer.

                       
Consequences

To continue the story I have to explain how Facebook works for a moment, apologies if this bit is boringly familiar, but let's assume that there are some who don't know this. As the owner of a popular page with 100,000+ followers, if I reply to a comment that someone else has posted on my Facebook wall, that story immediately jumps from complete obscurity into thousands of people's news feeds.

So that's exactly what happened to "You are 
a bit much of liberal fuck wits.". Suddenly more people had seen that post, than the overwhelming majority of the other Facebook interactions the guy who wrote it had ever made in his life.

While I was chatting to my friend on Skype, loads of other people were commenting on the 
"You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits" thread. At first the comments from other people were lighthearted, but it soon descended in tone dramatically with someone claiming that the guy looked like a paedophile, and others browsing through his Facebook profile and making remarks about the shitness of the contents. Throughout all of this, the guy didn't respond or interact in any way. He wasn't defending himself, and he certainly wasn't saying anything else rude or obnoxious to wind people up.
     
A bit further down the thread someone had drawn attention to the guy's contact details and his employer details. This made me very uneasy indeed. If someone writes something totally outrageous like declaring murderous intentions, appealing for ethnic genocide or calling someone a paedophile without the remotest shred of evidence, I can see the justification for considering whether to inform their employers or the police. If they've written "You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits" and nothing else, then I can see no justification at all. 
     
Someone else sneered that despite being very right-wing and confused, the guy had once had Nelson Mandela as his profile picture. As far as I'm concerned, some kind of tribute to Mandela isn't something to be sneered at, it's actually a sign that behind the obvious cloud of angry right-wing confusion that he occupies, this guy actually empathises with a man who spent 27 years in prison to achieve more black equality in South Africa. It's a sign that if we were nice to him, we could probably convince him about the value of social justice, and the importance of rejecting right-wing economic apartheid.

     
My response

I was horrified when I came back to find this had happened because when I wrote 
"Sentence a form can at coherent least I. [rearrange to win a prize]" in reply to "You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits", I only meant it as a joke, I certainly didn't mean to trigger a nasty spate of cyber-bullying.

I deleted the "he looks like a paedophile" comment as soon as I saw it and wrote a comment expressing my opposition to cyber-bullying, 
pointing out that it was completely unacceptable to compare someone to a paedophile, and totally out of order to threaten the guy's livelihood by bringing his employer into the situation. I also noted that I'd deleted a comment because I always notify when I delete anything in order to maintain transparency. 

That the guy was dealt a load of nastiness as a consequence of me making a light-hearted joke saddened me because I remember what it was like to suffer bullying as a child, and the self-esteem and social confidence problems those experiences triggered in me.


Setting off a spate of malicious cyber-bullying by responding in jest to a comment that was definitely hilarious enough to deserve one has made me think about cyber-bullying and my responsibilities as a guy with an almost unbreakable no-censorship policy.

If replying to someone writing
 "You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits" on my Facebook wall triggers cyber-bullying, then it seems like a moral obligation to simply ignore "You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits" type comments in future rather than risk inadvertently triggering another parade of unacceptable nastiness, some of which needs deleting.
                   

I would be saddened if further spates of bullying convince me of this obligation to ignore most of the comments on my wall, because "You are a bit much of liberal fuck wits" is genuinely one of the funniest things I've read in ages, so funny it thoroughly deserved a response.
   
Where is the line?

This is an important question for all of us to consider. I think that a bit of ridicule is fine, as long as it's not done in a spiteful manner. If you ever see me reply in a manner that you consider spiteful, please flag it up and I'll reconsider my tone.

The same goes for people who comment on my page. You guys need to consider your tone as well, because I don't want to end up in a position where I have to self-censor in order to avoid triggering remarks that will make me have to delete comments, which I hate having to do.

It is sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line, but one of the most important considerations is "fightback". If the person you are criticising or lightly ridiculing fights back by writing more bizarre and outrageous things, then it's not really so out of order to retort in kind. They're obviously "up for it" if they argue back. We just have to be careful never to lower the tone more than they do themselves.

If we look at where their line appears to be, then endeavour to toe a more reasonable and respectful one, there is still plenty of scope to be funnier, more knowledgeable, more logical or simply more coherent than they are.

If they throw a load of below-the-belt punches, it's hardly out of order to come back with a factual body blow, a logical uppercut or a witty sucker-punch. If they don't fight back at all it's a completely different matter, and it's really important to be careful what is said because they may be taking their punches very badly indeed for all we know.*

Be cool to one another

     
The Internet is like a playground full of children at different levels of development. It's up to the more sensible kids on the playground to teach the annoying ones how to behave in a more appropriate manner. The best way to do this is to lead by example.

If the older and smarter children question, criticise or lightly ridicule the annoying smaller children for their outrageous behaviour, that's good because the badly behaved kids might learn to behave more appropriately.

If the older children resort to bullying the little ones, that achieves nothing positive at all.

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* = Apologies for the extended boxing analogy in that paragraph, I rarely watch the sport, but it seemed apt.





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