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Fighting Bullies Without Resorting to Bullying

In an op-ed in today’s Daily Caller, legal advocate Tamara Holder reached a new high in rhetorical excess by calling Facebook, “the most dangerous assault weapon in the world.”


Even so, Holder is right when she says bullying is a serious and ongoing problem both online and offline.  After documenting examples of online trolling and bullying activity, Holder calls on Facebook and law enforcement to raise their game.  Some of that is happening, with the social network now hosting a safety center with guidelines for parents, educators, teens and law enforcement. 


But beyond proactive educational measures, Ms. Holder has to appreciate what the broader Internet ecosystem can – and cannot – do to fight back against bullies, especially those who hide behind veils of anonymity.

Cyber Bullying Concept


What can online services do?
Online services can and should remove abusive content, based on user reports and internal monitoring for trigger words and phrases.   Most online outlets, from the New York Times to the Food Network, have paid employees monitoring user posts. Unfortunately, abusive posts are visible until they’re detected and removed, although we could harness the power of the crowd to flag abusive activity faster.


Online services should also suspend abusive users who have repeatedly violated the service’s terms of use.  While suspension isn’t so effective on sites that allow users to be anonymous, the move to tie comments to an individual’s real-name – like on Facebook – should have a civilizing effect on online conversation in the long run.


What can law enforcement do?

Ms. Holder calls on law enforcement to patrol Facebook for illegal activity, but this hardly seems like an effective or desirable solution.  Law enforcement has limited resources, and the First Amendment limits what they can do about comments.


But it is appropriate for online services to forge relationships with law enforcement that enable quick action when needed.  Facebook, Yahoo, Aol and others do just this, even publishing law enforcement handbooks that outline data request options and best practices for investigators.


Similarly, if courts convict someone for online harassment, judges could impose restrictions on their online activity, similar to what’s done to keep convicted sex offenders away from schools and online communities.


Who else can help?


Just as in the offline world, online problems can’t be fixed by decrees or good intentions.  It takes…well, it takes a village.  Parents and peers of those polluting the online space with hateful threats can provide the most effective interventions against bullying.


Ms. Holder’s anger and frustration are widely shared.   But her anger is blinding her to legal and constitutional limits on what can be done and by whom.  Better to focus her energy on specific measures that can actually make a difference.


I attended a conference today put on by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), which featured a panel with Facebook’s Marne Levine, Twitter’s Del Harvey and executives with the fast-growing social networks FormSpring and Togetherville.


I called on these social networks to publish stats on how many abusive comments they’ve removed, and how many abusers they’ve suspended.   In a perfect world, this data would answer critics who say these services are taking no action against abuse. More important, the results would signal to bullies that they are being watched and will be kicked-out of the online conversation.


But in the real world, online services get hammered by the media and critics when they report results of aggressively enforcing their rules.   Privacy or child advocates can’t resist pouncing on enforcement results, citing it as evidence that bad people are lurking in online communities. The bottom line is that proactive self-policing can be a real catch-22 for online services.


That’s why I suggested that a trusted group like FOSI should partner with online services to create a safe reporting mechanism for enforcement actions against abuse and bullying.  FOSI could report enforcement data, examples and trends, without stigmatizing the services that are working hardest to protect their users.  FOSI could even stimulate some confidential competition among online services.


I hope FOSI’s leaders take a serious look at a reporting clearinghouse.  It could advance safety both online and offline, while reducing the bullying done by critics against the services working hardest to stop the bullying.


–Steve DelBianco