Monday, 16 April 2012

The Internet: A Haven For Bullies?

"I hope u don't see Christmas because of cancer and ur kids never enjoy Christmas ever again."


A shocking statement? I certainly think so. This is just one of the many, vile messages sent via Twitter to the comedian Alan Davies, after he misguidedly (and very insensitively) suggested that Liverpool FC were wrong for refusing to play a match on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 fans lost their lives.

With feelings understandably running high so close to the anniversary itself (15th April), Alan's remarks, however harmless he may have intended them to be, were bound to cause offence to those who lost loved ones in the tragedy and some anger was to be expected. However, the deluge of bile that Alan Davies received immediately outweighed his original comments. It's important to remember that although his words were undoubtedly insensitive, he at no point "mocked the dead," as he was subsequently accused of doing; he simply said that other teams play on the anniversaries of other disasters and asked why Liverpool didn't do the same. Rash words, spoken without thought of how they might sound to those affected by events at Hillsborough, but not an outright mockery of the dead, or an attack on the grieving. At least I don't believe that's how they were intended.

Yet, within hours of the comments being heard, Alan Davies was flooded with a cascade of horrendous tweets: "You f***ing w***er, I'm gonna piss on your mother's grave. Hope she doesn't rest in peace" and "just you TRY going to Liverpool now you c**t, you'll DIE" are just two of many, all of which shame those who sent them more than Alan Davies' words could ever shame him.

Yet this is not an isolated incident. Even more worryingly, there are cases of celebrities and non-celebrities alike, being sent abusive messages without having done anything to provoke it.

In one of the first cases of its kind, student Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days after being found guilty of racial abuse via the social networking site, Twitter. Following the news that footballer Fabrice Muamba had collapsed on the pitch after suffering a cardiac arrest, Liam tweeted: "LOL! F*ck Muamba, he's dead!!!" When some of his Twitter followers took offence at this incredibly insensitive statement, Liam began referring to them as "wog c**ts" and telling them to go and "pick cotton." His responses became more and more racially offensive and abusive (most newspaper reports declared the worst of his tweets to be so offensive that they couldn't be published), until eventually, his Twitter followers began reporting him to police forces around the UK, leading to his eventual arrest and subsequent incarceration. Liam Stacey claimed he was drunk and deeply regretted his actions, but the judge still insisted that an example had to be made of him.

Whether or not his prison sentence was fair or, as many have claimed, he was unfairly made a scapegoat for all "trolls" who hide behind the internet in order to attack others, remains the subject of much debate. What concerns me, however, is the seemingly unstoppable rise of the internet bully, hiding behind his/her computer screen, thinking the relative anonymity given by an online pseudonym means that they can say whatever they like, whenever they like and to whoever they like.

"Cyberbullying" - where a person uses the internet to send nasty messages to someone, or to write hurtful, often false statements about their victim, encouraging others to join in, is on the increase. Incidents of people setting up fake Twitter or Facebook accounts to make fun of others are all too common and there have been cases where entire Facebook groups have been created for no purpose other than to ridicule someone - often a person of school-age who will already be suffering during the day and now feels that they're being attacked at home as well. The combination of bullying at school and at home, via social networking sites can be too much for the victim to take. In October of 2006, schoolgirl Megan Meier committed suicide just three weeks before her 14th birthday. Her parents brought an investigation into their daughter's death and it was eventually attributed to bullying via the social networking site, MySpace. The worst of the bullying came via an account belonging to "Josh Evans," supposedly a 16 year old boy. However, this was a fabricated account, which several different people contributed to, in the hope of humiliating and bullying 13 year old Megan. Most shockingly of all, the person who opened up the account was the mother of one of Megan's former friends, a woman by the name of Lori Drew, who actively sent abusive messages to the teenager under the alias of Josh Evans. The final message Megan received read: "You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." Megan hung herself and was found 20 minutes later.

Sadly, Megan's death is not the only one attributed to cyberbullying and the bullies are no longer always resorting to fake accounts, such is their gloating conviction that they cannot and will not be punished for their actions. Nor does the habit of cyberbullying belong only to social networking sites.

Online forums can be a haven for bullies, who manipulate other members into thinking they're "funny" or "edgy," rather than have the rest of the forum openly call them out as the bully they truly are. I know this from personal experience. I used to belong to a forum and I would like to state now that I can well imagine what a difficult job it is to moderate such a place and to ensure that bullying is always stamped out. However, some remarks are bound to slip through the cracks and when "cliques" form - especially when people are manipulative and clever enough to involve a moderator in their "group" - all too often, a person can feel bullied, with nobody to report their concerns to. In any forum, there are bound to be arguments amongst people and the odd remark that causes upset or offence. I can remember, only too well, posting a photograph of myself in a new outfit I'd bought and returning later to see if anyone had commented, only to see a post written by one person on the forum I knew to be a bully, saying: "Why is everyone saying nice things to her about this photo? She might believe you and think she's actually pretty. I think you should all be honest and tell her how ugly she is. It's better she knows the truth."

Now that statement in isolation can't necessarily be deemed as bullying and although I was very hurt (and had a bit of a cry) about it, I had to accept that the person who wrote it wasn't going to be "punished" for it. For reasons more personal than bullying, I no longer use that internet forum and as I have all of the friends I made through it as Facebook or Twitter contacts, I don't miss it at all. But there are thousands - millions - of people who do still use internet forums on a daily basis and encounter hurtful remarks with an alarming frequency.

What is it that makes a bully turn to the internet? In my view it's the sheer ease and anonymity it offers. In just a few seconds, you can type a hurtful, nasty message to someone and send it without fear of any real comeback. It only takes minutes to set up a Facebook group designed to do nothing but strike fear and humiliation in the heart of your victim and it's ridiculously easy to have a fake account from which to do your dirty work. Bullies are - without fail - always cowards. Being able to abuse and threaten someone without having to face that person is almost irresistible to a bully. But what is just a few minutes out of their life to the perpetrator, is so much more than that to the victim.

I've been bullied. Online and offline. I've had accusations levelled at me via the internet which were untrue and which I was unable to defend myself against, such was the level of nastiness and determination that they were right about me. I've even been wrongly labelled the bully when I've tried to stand up for myself. Anyone who thinks that messages sent on the internet are somehow less hurtful than bullying in "real life" is wrong. When you're bullied at school or at work, you can go home at the end of the day and feel safe. When someone is sending you vile messages, or badmouthing you online, you're already at home. Your safe place has been taken. And who do you complain to? You feel incredibly alone.

Alan Davies has, since his remarks, donated £1000 to the Justice For The 96 Hillsborough campaign. He has apologised and explained that he didn't set out to cause offence. But those who sent him tweets of such a disgusting nature that they instantly obliterated any genuine point they might have conveyed, have, with one notable exception, made no such apology. Such is the cowardice of the bully - online and off.

Fabrice Muamba left hospital today, having amazed doctors with his quick recovery. Liam Stacey appealed against his sentence. He lost.

The internet is a wonderful thing. A tool that can used for so many wonderful things and a part of our lives that I suspect most of us would now be lost without. Freedom of speech is also a wonderful thing. Freedom to express ourselves and to put our opinions out there - it's one of the reasons why I'm so glad I live in the modern, Western world. But when do we cross the line from free speech, to abuse? When does banter become bullying?

Perhaps we will never fully stamp out trolling or cyberbullying. But we can be vigilant against it. We can tell ourselves to stop and think before we put our fingers to the keyboard. To consider the consequences of our actions before we hit "send" or "post." Maybe that way, we can use the internet for good, without hurting others. Perhaps we can all do our best to ensure that there'll never be another teenager committing suicide because of abuse online.

Think before you post.

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