What is Cyberbullying? What is NOT?

A much overused term.

Cyberbullying Is

An attack on an INDIVIDUAL or group of individuals that is repeated or ongoing. Organisations cannot be bullied though members of an organisation can when the members can be identified and are individually targeted for harassment.

The individual may be a public or private figure — the fact they are a minister, rockstar, teacher or student doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if they are a wonderful person or a horrible one.

There must be malice or intention to harm — or at least behaviour that any reasonable person could interpret as intention to harm.

The medium is digital and may be public (comment thread, Twitter, etc) or private (SMS, PM, etc).

Cyberbullying includes:

  • Repeated harassing or threatening comments which are personal attacks on an individual. These may be many comments from one bully or a group of bullies.
  • A call to others to harass an individual.
  • A group of people invoking mob justice for what they think is the bad behaviour of an individual.
  • Repeated publication of malicious stories and statements or images about someone on your personal blog or social media account.
  • Publishing private details of a person and/or their family with or without a request for others to use that information to harass the victim further.
  • Photoshopping and publishing images or videos of the victim in such a way to imply threat or to tarnish their reputation
  • Taking private and potentially embarrassing images of someone and sharing with others. This includes photos the bully may have taken themselves.
  • Publishing and hosting revenge porn or threatening to publish revenge porn.
  • Impersonating someone online in order to damage their reputation. This includes sending emails in their name either from a mimic account or hacked account. Likewise includes hacking into someone’s profile and changing it in a way that may others.
  • Impersonating someone online simply to mock or distress them.
  • Creation of online polls where visitors are asked to rate individuals’ attributes in a negative manner

Cyberbullying Is Not

Behaviour that is isolated, not repeated or ongoing and/or doesn’t cause stress or discomfort to an individual.

Cyberbullying does not include:

  • A negative comment on a thread.
  • An attacking comment that is a one-off or is followed by an apology and no further attack.
  • Expressing a different opinion than another.
  • An online debate that doesn't involve personal attacks like calling someone stupid.
  • An individual or group venting about someone on a private thread.
  • Comments from someone trying to make you angry (ie troll).
  • News report or blog post which is factual and accurate and is not an invasion of privacy.
  • A campaign to boycott a company or urge an organisation to change its policy.
  • A petition urging policy changes.
  • An individual making a comment which is insulting or discriminatory to a group of people (eg racism, sexism, homophobia) but not targeted at an individual.
  • Defamatory comments and insults about an individual which is not directed towards that person.

Organisations

Can an organisation be bullied? No but individuals may be bullied because of their association with an organisation. For example if employees in a company receive menacing emails or text just because of where they work, this would be an acceptable situation to “apply the corporate veil” and claim the company itself has been harassed.

Cyberbullying is a form of harassment: someone needs to be stressed by the behaviour. Organisations have no feelings. If I say, “Company XYZ sucks”, the company is not going to cry. But if I go after the employees of the company, they may well do.

The only exception to this rule would be, perhaps, for sole proprietorships, very small companies and other cases where the organisation name is closely associated with an individual. In that case, attacking an organisation is as good as attacking the individual.

It’s Messy

The lists above make classification seem easier than it really is. Conversations are fluid. What can start out as, say, venting, can become a form of harassment.

If I engage in a discussion about someone and call her names because I disagree with her politics, is that just venting? That Ann Coulter is such a fascist cow. That bitch Rachel Maddow is fucking annoying. Rude? Certainly. Bullying? I don’t think so.

But what if she’s no longer a distant figure on TV? What if I know she is watching the thread and is aware of my comments? What if the politics we disagree about are how to run the school newspaper and we are both 15 and the discussion is on the Facebook page of the most popular kid in school? And I won’t shut up about it. I just keep saying it over and over. Jane Smith is such a stupid bitch. What a loser.

Fame

The final caveat is that, although anyone can be bullied, there tends to be an expectation of needing a thicker skin when someone is a “public figure.” This does not mean they have not been bullied, only that they are supposed to put up with it.

But what is a public figure? Anyone who writes a blog or posts a video steps into the public sphere and is potentially a target of cyberbullies. How many vlogs to I have to publish before I am a public figure? One? And if life online always means you have to expect some abuse, when do you stop saying, “Suck it up” and start saying “They have crossed a line”?

Getting it Right

Clearly there is a lot of nasty stuff that can be said on the web and it is convenient, but not appropriate, to sweep it all up under the banner of “cyberbullying.” Over generalisation can lead to prohibiting all disagreement and harsh speech.

The power imbalance between individuals and organisations has been somewhat redressed by the ability to speak up through social media. However poorly drafted laws could easily be used to criminalize dissent, mass action and criticism of business and government.

If this seems unrealistic in practice, the technology is on its way. Let’s get the definitions right before it arrives.

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