Nobody likes a bully. But when bullying takes place online, it’s more than bad behavior. It’s a challenge to governments forced to weigh free speech and an open internet against privacy and the social harm caused by emotional and physical threats. Cyberbullying can range from spreading malicious gossip via e-mail to posting embarrassing photographs on social media. Cyberstalking is harassment through the internet that carries a threat of real personal harm. Both have increased with the use of social media, while the calls to stop them have grown louder.

The Situation

Right before her husband, Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, first lady Melania Trump announced that she would work to call attention to problems of cyberbullying among young people, saying “our culture has gotten too mean and too rough.” Many noted that her husband had been called a cyberbully during the campaign for the harsh Twitter messages he directed at opponents; he’s continued sending barbed tweets in office. Trolls, or people who post provocative messages on social media, have at times bombarded celebrities with racist and sexist messages. The web abets online bullying and harassment because perpetrators can hide behind false profiles and redirected e-mails. Law enforcement agencies and schools have cracked down on cyberbullying of students, in part because it’s linked to suicides. Social media companies have felt the heat. After teenagers began abandoning Facebook, the company introduced tools to battle online harassment in 2013. Twitter rolled out  new ways to mute and report abusive posts in 2016. The move followed reports that companies that might have acquired the social media platform were concerned about what the uncivil forms of communication would do to their reputations.

The Background

The word bully, derived from Dutch and German, originally meant lover or brother. The term took a darker turn with the rise of the schoolyard ruffian in Victorian England and came to symbolize the nasty way kids can treat each other. After the first U.S. online stalking prosecution in 2004, some states added online harassment laws. Congress included provisions to curtail cyberbullying and cyberstalking in the Violence Against Women Act of 2006; 18- to 29-year-old women are more than twice as likely to be sexually harassed online than young men in the same age group. Other governments have gone further. The U.K. passed a law in October 2014 making it a crime to distribute intimate photos without the subject’s consent; New Zealand passed an anti-cyberbullying law in 2015. In 2014, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and police investigated rape and death threats made to female video game developers and bloggers in an online harassment campaign dubbed  GamerGate, named for a mostly male, mostly angry community of anonymous video and internet game players. 

The Argument

Opponents of anti-cyberbullying legislation say existing laws on libel, harassment and assaults can be used to prosecute online bullies and stalkers. And they note that free speech allows for nasty speech. Those pushing for more laws say prosecutors are reluctant to pursue internet harassment cases because there often isn’t direct contact with victims. School officials have problems dealing with cyberbullies. Often there’s a fine line between an inappropriate comment and a crime requiring police notification. While governments have mandated that educators stop cyberbullying in schools, courts and lawmakers disagree on whether schools can discipline students for off-campus behavior. There are also questions on whether technology should be the focus of anti-bullying efforts, as more kids have said they’ve been bullied in person (12%) or on the phone (7%) than online (8%) or by text (9%). 

First published Nov.

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