Taking a stance against online harassment

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By Jeraldine Phneah

Early next year, the Singapore government will be reviewing legislation to address the issue of online harassment. This move is supported by legal experts and over 80 percent of the respondents in a REACH survey. K Shanmugam also pointed out that based on a Microsoft study, Singapore ranks second globally for cyber bullying.

While some are worried that the terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ have been conflated, it is not as different. According to the US legal definition, cyberbullying is “Communication technology is used to intentionally harm others through hostile behavior such as sending text messages and posting ugly comments on the internet”. They define it as part of cyber harassment which is the use of communication technologies to “harass an individual or group through personal attacks” through “posting on blogs or social networking sites”. While netizens have the right to their views and to disagree, if such actions cross the line to uncivil behaviors like personal attacks and derogatory remarks, it becomes unacceptable.

Protecting the individual’s safety and dignity

Although western countries with strong beliefs in Freedom of Speech like the USA, United Kingdom and Australia have rolled out attempts to criminalize cyber harassment, some still hold misconceptions that measures against online harassment goes against their rights to freedom of expression.

However, freedom of expression is different from freedom to defame, verbally abuse and publicly humiliate an individual. The things being said in a private disagreement and gossips among a group of friends is different from those posted online which is visible by the entire world. Often, these accusations are rumors, accusations, insults based on superficial assumptions about a person’s character and integrity as seen from the recent Twelve Cupcakes saga. This is no longer a political issue but a national one. Both PAP supporters and opposition supporters have faced online harassment as can be seen from the recent saga where Fabrications About PAP and its fans cyber-lynched blogger Andrew Loh.

While freedom of speech is important, it should not be achieved at the expense of causing harm to others or infringing on their rights to safety and dignity.

Protecting the vulnerable

With social networking sites, taunting can go viral rapidly with humiliation of the victims becoming widespread and immediate.  Although this is greatly embarrassing and emotionally painful for everyone, some social groups are at greater risk of being targeted or more adversely affected. They include – children, youths, senior citizens, disabled, people going through a difficult time, or those who have a history of depression, bullying or abuse.

Others who are at risk include social groups traditionally targeted by bullies generally such as those who are perceived as different from their peers, who come from a poorer or dysfunctional family, new to a school and from a minority racial group. While both men and women are victims, AWARE has revealed that a study found that 72% of online harassment victims are women. When we surf forums, we often see comments by men on women, bashing their looks, even if it is not related to the topic at hand, or using sexist labels like ‘slut’, ‘bimbo’ and ‘bitch’. To accept sexist, ageist or racist comments on the basis of ‘free speech’ is to say that the Singaporean society accepts these forms of discrimination.

Protecting the reputation of innocent parties

Tougher cyber-harassment laws also protect the dignity and reputation of innocent individuals from being destroyed out by those who abuse the wide outreach of the internet to harm others for personal gains – amusement, the desire to feel powerful, gain attention and revenge. Often, such behavior is also motivated by jealousy. They could be targeted at individuals as can be seen from the experience of beauty queen Kelly Waite and 12 year old student Rebecca Sedwick, or businesses being harmed by competitors’ fake reviews. With greater scientific evidence pointing to the correlation between social media networking and increased jealousy, more individuals could potentially become targets of abuse.

A defamatory thread, a hate blog or the creation of a fake profile can harm the victim in their career and social prospects. Nine out of ten recruiters type a candidate’s name into an online search to find out more information beyond what is on the candidate’s resume. A total of 50 percent of recruiters have eliminated a job candidate because of information they found publicly available on the internet. The same practice applies to romantic situations, based on a survey, 80 percent of Asian women do a Google and Facebook search on the names of their potential dates.

Holistic approach needed to combat cyber-harassment

Despite the fact that 75 percent of the 1000 respondents believe actions like “verbal abuse; repeatedly calling; stalking; spreading malicious lies and comments online” all constitute as cyber- harassment, a worrying number see these acts as a norm. Victims are told that if they are not able to take sexist, derogatory and personal attacks, they should not post online. Like victim blaming in rape, the recipients are told they deserve it and responsibility is being placed on them rather than the aggressors.

More disturbingly, the idea of returning an eye for an eye by fighting back on social media is a preferred method by some youths. They jeer at victims for actions like seeking help from institutions and non-profit organizations as cowardly. While celebrity bloggers like Xiaxue (who has more than 40,000 page views) have the power to fight back on their own against a group of netizens, others do not have the same readership and may be out-numbered. If such attitudes persist among youths, people may be even more afraid to seek help.

Furthermore, fighting back online may not be the best method because it perpetuates cyber-bullying and does little to solve the problem. As public intellectual, Cherian George commented with a gang war analogy: You pull a knife, I pull a gun. But that will just leave you a field of dead bodies. And that’s not helpful at all.

Thus strengthening legislation, public education campaigns could be carried out to raise awareness for this problem, teach victims how to seek help and debunk existing attitudes of victim blaming. Educational institutions should also take measures to protect their students. A global study by Microsoft revealed that only 23 percent of youths said their schools had formal policies which addressed online bullying and 37 percent provided education on online bullying. News websites and online forums could introduce socially responsible initiatives like comment policies as seen from the example of Huffington Post’s recent initiative to combat trolling and Quora’s ‘Be Nice, Be Respectful’ policy. These policies can potentially increase readership by creating a healthier platform for productive conversation.

While we may not agree with views held by others, who are we to resort to cyber-lynching and bullying to ‘punish’ someone? Who are we to defame them and turn others against them for the whole world to see without clarifying things on their side? People ask victims to suck it up and welcome to the real world. This would keep being the real world if we keep it that way but it’s not until we stop treating each other like that. Through intolerance of sexist, racist remarks or other personal attacks, we can collectively take a stance that while it is okay to disagree and provide constructive criticism, we should not cross the line to personal attacks.

Jeraldine Phneah is currently reading Communications and Public Policy & Global Affairs at NTU. Her main area of interest is social justice and using social media for a good cause. She was previously a local correspondent at Sing Tao News Corporation in Hong Kong. She blogs at www.jeraldine-phneah.blogspot.com