On New Years day this week I had some time to look through my Facebook feed, particularly a local community information group I am part of. Someone had posted a message that they were looking for someone - they mentioned her by name, where she worked and that she was having some time off her job for a shoulder injury and they asked if anyone who knew her could tag her in the comments so the poster could find her.
My caution bells went off and I commented that randomly asking to tag someone publicly may not be the best course of action for possible privacy and legal issues. That is all I said. No insults, no accusations. Just an educated point.
The poster responded with a question about why this would be the case, and I mentioned that some people may not want to be tagged publicly or 'outed' in a very large public group like the one were we communicating on - there may be issues in her life etc etc. I suggested that maybe he could contact her place of work, leave his number and ask them to pass it on - then she will have a choice to contact him. It all started off quite civilly, then the insults started - He came back and said "She has a choice now u idiot". Then others started chiming in about if she didn't want to be found, then her settings would be adjusted for that (which I agreed with, but did mention that not everyone knows the same skills on Facebook regarding privacy etc). The original poster then started getting quite abusive about my comment, that I was accusing him of being a stalker and that she is a nice lady etc along with a couple of insults to which I replied, no, it wasn't him I was worried about. It was the issue of allowing her the choice to not be outed in a public place, that this was a basic element of digital citizenship.
Then the vitriole and abuse started from other people, and I was incredulous at the reaction of people to a simple request that he not ask for random people to tag this woman. I was accused of watching too many law TV shows and waving a pseudo law degree around, I was shouted at (in capitals) that I was not his mother. I was accused of being a bully, that did not allow for other peoples opinions ... really? Then I had about 50 people tearing me to shreds about a simple request to not randomly tag someone. The picture at the top of this post was exactly how it felt. I felt I was in the town square being hounded and insulted, for no real reason. It was a herd mentality moment against me, and it was awful.
I was an adult, who felt I did nothing wrong except voice my professional understanding of the situation so as to help the original poster (and the woman he was trying to find) to avoid any possible repercussions from being randomly outed on a very large forum. Yet, I was the one being stoned. There was nothing I could write that would placate the situation, or give me peace, as every time I defended my position someone else would chime in and insult me, so I left the conversation and turned off the notifications (which I still received - so much for trying to remove myself from the situation).
After a few hours I reflected on the experience, one that I had never had before and one that I would not want to repeat. My emotions at the time were incredulity that the majority on this forum believed that it was their right to tag anyone they wanted in a comment or post, and it was up to the tagged person to have their settings set if they did not want that to happen. The attitude was that if you are on Facebook or the internet in general that you have no right to privacy (this was mentioned a few times), and that you were fair game.
I also experienced shock at being insulted without any reason, and then being unable to defend myself against a tide of abuse led to feelings of disempowerment and a plunging self esteem. It made me quite upset. The incident only lasted about 90 minutes. I had the power to turn off the offending section of my life and get on with other things. However, the pull was quite strong to go back to the post to see what else was being said. I did not want to feed the trolls any more, but I was interested in what was being discussed (possibly to laugh, but at the same time I would be brought down). Thankfully, the post was deleted either by the original poster (who was bragging about how many comments he got from a simple request) or by the administrator. These were adults behaving like school yard bullies.
I then reflected on what it would be like as a young person to be at the centre of such behaviour. Not pretty. They may not have the strength to switch off, and continue to feed the vitriole, and even if they did, the pull to find out what was being said is so very strong. Young bullies tend to keep going as well - much longer than 90 minutes, sometimes over a year. The feelings after the incident made me feel that I was not a welcome part of this community, would I be able to post any questions to the group after this? Do I need to change my FB persona (name and photo) so people will not recognise me in the street. I kept reminding myself that a few hours on the internet is like a few months in real life, and by the time 24 hours is up, it and I will be forgotten and people will move on. But a young person may not know this, and feel that everything they have with regard to friends and community has been crushed, that they cannot show their faces, that they have been told they are worthless and insulted by strangers (or maybe friends) who have jumped onto the bandwagon to be seen as a worthy person on FB or social media by others.
We can say to young people just ignore it, turn it off get on with other things in life, but the feelings of powerlessness continue, and as an adult, I am now reluctant to participate in the forums, and even contemplating removing myself from this potential future abuse. This is a powerful lesson for me as an educator, this stuff happens all the time, and it is really a nasty part of the online world. We cannot shrug this under the table, we need to be helping young people how to handle this, and not assume they know how to do it. Role plays, discussion of how to behave as an internet user is still an important conversation. How to react when they are the subject of the abuse, what to do, how to work through what has happened are all important conversations. It may not happen to them now, but possibly later as an adult.
Have a look at the short video below about the long term effects of being bullied - online or face to face.
The videos below are excellent from the Cyber Bullying Prevention Ad Council. They are a few years old, but still relevant. When I show these to students, there is stunned silence afterward. Shock that that would happen and perhaps reflection on their own behaviour online.
This stuff needs to be explicitly taught and often. Once is not enough. The message must get through. Young people grow up to be adults who will continue the behaviour if they think it is OK.