All Rise Say NO To Cyber Abuse are forerunners to present that we need to redefine the terminologiesthat we have around the acts of abuse on the Internet. Currently and most commonly we use the terms cyber bullying, cyber stalking, cyber harassment and cyber trolling. Due to over-use and desensitisation, this terminology underplays and dismisses the impact of the harm done by abusive online behaviour.
When an All Rise volunteer met with their MP recently, they were given this piece of information on the current UK government’s stance:
‘The Government does not want to make any form of bullying a criminal offence as to do so would risk criminalising young people.’
This implies that ‘bullying’ is simply something children do to others in a moment of silliness. Even if we just keep it at children and what children have done with ‘harmless’ bullying, it is clear to see that the act of using the internet to harass and abuse people has resulted in child suicides – Amanda Todd a 15 year old from America and Izzy Dix a 13 year old from the UK, being a couple of the more well-known cases.
And for Izzy Dix’s mother, the abuse did not stop with her daughter’s death, she was trolled after Izzy died and shared, ‘I don’t have any words for the trolling on top of the grief. It was absolutely shattering. Suicide shatters lives anyway, losing a child completely breaks you’ 1
As we have seen, not only can online abuse lead to people’s deaths but it can also cause grave psychological trauma. Anyone, including children, abusing others in this way need to be treated within a clear framework of law, without shying away from the fact that they have acted criminally.
In an article in the Huffington Post, called ‘The Reality of Cyber Abuse’ there are testimonials from young people about their experiences of cyber abuse; here is just one quote, representative of many, an all too common experience for people all over the world.
‘I’ve received death threats, been told to kill myself, and called tons of names. I wanted to die. I couldn’t do anything because it was online and out of my reach. I didn’t know what to do’ – Age 14, UK2
Every year around 750 Australian teens between the ages of 13 and 17 commit suicide because of cyber bullying. 3
This is a shocking figure, from just one country, that should stop us in our tracks to consider the number of people devastated by cyber abuse. All of us are part of this developing phenomena; actions taken on the computer keyboard are causing significant harm and we are the ones to instigate the required conversations, call this online behaviour for what it is, abuse, and support our governments to legislate effectively bringing the standard of communication online out of the realms of crime.
The redefinition of cyber bullying, cyber trolling, cyber harassment and cyber stalking as cyber abuse would enable the crown prosecution to enforce laws already in place for hate speech and abuse. As already agreed by those in law enforcement, we do not need multiple new laws, we just need to be able to enforce the laws that apply off line, to our online world.
The definition of bullying is:
A person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. ‘he is a ranting, domineering bully’
Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something. ‘a local man was bullied into helping them’
The definition of abuse is :
The improper use of something: ”alcohol abuse” synonyms: misuse, misapplication, misemployment, exploitation
Cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal: ”a black eye and other signs of physical abuse” synonyms: mistreatment, maltreatment, ill-treatment, molestation, interference
Use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse: ”the judge abused his power by imposing the fines” synonyms: misuse, misapply, misemploy, exploit, take advantage of
Treat (a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly: ”riders who abuse their horses should be prosecuted” synonyms: mistreat, maltreat, ill-treat, treat badly, molest
When we see the definitions laid out like this it is very clear that what occurs online is abuse, it is using something for bad purpose, for cruelty, it is not someone who is being a bit annoying and bullish or picking on someone smaller than them. The use of words and their implicit meaning is the foundation of law and to carry on using bullying rather than abuse is a miscarriage of justice.
In recent news, the CPS shared new laws being laid down and a rather peculiar clause that says, ‘Anyone who sends the message only because he or she thought it was funny would not be committing the offence.’ 4
It is like they just gave the defense team a home run… ‘I was joking when I said “drink bleach and kill yourself”, in fact I was laughing while I wrote that, hilarious my dark twisted sense of humour…isn’t it.’
There is a particularly harrowing case in America where a 17 year old girl convinced her boyfriend to kill himself goading him on by text when he wanted to stop5. The idea that she could say she wasn’t serious is part of what we need to unpick as a society when enforcing our laws and defining what is abuse. She was found guilty of manslaughter.
And what of abuse when the person posting doesn’t swear or use hate speech but is psychologically torturing you with mind games, saying things like they are stalking you? This symbol ((( ))) around people’s names was used by neo Nazis to identify Jewish people on Twitter… this was identified as intimidation and posts were removed by Twitter.
It is interesting that Twitter acted on this abuse, considering the level of vile abuse that they allow on their platforms that is reported and not acted on, as per the All Rise research conducted earlier this year where 61% of posts that were reported as offensive and abusive were deemed not to contravene Twitter’s community standards.
It’s very easy to excuse children and young people, not wanting to criminalise them, but is this imbedding patterns of abusive behaviour deeper into what we are coming to consider as normal and acceptable? At the recent ‘Recl@im the Internet’ Conference in London in July, an executive of Twitter mentioned that they didn’t want kids being jailed for a ‘silly’ tweet; much along the lines of the defense team of the American student Brock Turner 6, who sexually assaulted a girl by a dumpster when he had been drinking. The defense team viewed it as a silly act that lasted 20 minutes and was out of character… the dismissal of the devastating impact of this ‘silly 20 minutes’ is extraordinary – the girl an invisible irrelevance in the protection of a young man’s academic and sporting future.
Back to our online world… the abdication of responsibility and accountability is a loss for all of us. Whilst we semantically reduce cyber abuse to cyber bullying, cyber stalking, cyber trolling and cyber harassment and, by association a crime to ‘silly behaviour’ we are dismissing the scale of the problem; it is a smoke screen of denial and irresponsibility.
The All Rise survey showed that significant numbers of adults (56%) have witnessed or been a recipient of abusive comments online.
Children become adults and if we are not prepared to have clear standards and laws upheld for those that abuse, our future looks bleak. Abuse is not playground bullying, a slap on the wrist event. We have seen and will continue to see that it devastates lives and the simple commitment to call it out for what it is will make a difference. Government and the service providers of our online forums can be called to task on standards if we set them.
The question to ask ourselves is – are we prepared to all rise now as a global community as this global playground loses site of human decency, respect and care?