Unsocial Networks

If, like me, you spend a lot of your life online, you have probably encountered some unsavoury characters lurking on the internet. Perhaps they have crossed your path more than once. Perhaps they were even posing as your ‘friends’.

Whether its trolls on Instagram, creeps on Tinder or stalkers on Facebook, cyber harassment has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon – and one that has far reaching impacts not only on the lives of individuals, but also on our workplaces, communities, educational institutions and government.

Carolina Are, PhD researcher, lecturer and social media consultant based at City, University of London believes the way we have been looking at both trolling and cyber harassment is wrong. Her research argues that, rather than simply blaming individual perpetrators, we should be contemplating what’s going on in society as a whole that is causing the abusive behavior in the first place.

I caught up with Carolina to talk digital democracy, disillusionment, and Big Brother.

RG: Hey Carolina! So, unfortunately, the majority of us who spend time online will have come across people who are unfriendly.

How do we know when someone is a Troll versus when their behaviour is a more serious form of cyber harassment?

CA: The way we've been thinking of trolling is completely wrong. We've been pathologising cyber harassers as crazy or monsters, which is too reductive.

My approach is criminological rather than psychological. What's happening to society that's resulting in cyber-harassment?

The ease in which we can access the means to harass people is one explanation. We all have the technology, we haven't seen ground-breaking examples of serious punishment and we feel we have impunity because we can have an anonymous profile. 

I like to differentiate trolling from harassment (flaming) by saying that the first is playful, often annoying conversation disruption whilst the second is often repeated and group-led, and counts as abuse because a reasonable person in that situation would feel scared or majorly triggered by reading those posts.

I think this differentiation is important. If we start defining behaviours correctly, it's easier to regulate them. 

RG: Who or where can we turn to for help if we feel uncomfortable about something that is happening online, and what can we expect them to do?

CA: The issue with asking for help is that the legal landscape is very confusing. Social media's popularity and use has been increasing at record speed, while laws need time to be drafted and approved - and rightly so, because you can never be too careful when it comes to state control over the public. Nobody wants a Big Brother society!

The Criminal Justice System's initial reaction to cyber-harassment has been to treat it like to domestic violence: Victims were told to get offline, while realistically they couldn't. We now work, pay bills and maintain relationships through the internet. 

 The authorities are becoming increasingly more aware of the impact cyber-harassment has. In the past fortnight, Katie Price in the UK has gained media and government attention to address cyber-harassment as hate crimes - the law still needs to keep up. 

What I'd say is: be prepared for a lot of frustration, because the legal loopholes are many, and there's a lot of uncertainty. However, there is also an increased awareness that this is a problem we need to solve. Eventually you'll be taken seriously. 

RG: How does legislation in Australia compare to other parts of the world?

CA: In 2017, new legislation was passed in Australia (inspired by changes to the law in the United Kingdom) that regulated the use of a telecommunications device when utilized to “menace, harass or cause offence”. If a person misuses a telecommunications device in a way “that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive,” they become liable to imprisonment for up to three years.

The problem in most countries is that many laws are being used at once. Old laws are being updated by adding tech to the mix, then new laws are also being created. There is a paradox of choice and a general confusion about how and when to prosecute cyber-harassers.

I welcome the use of hate crime legislation in judging whether we're facing mere conversation disruption or harassment. Hate crime law protects categories discriminated for their gender, religious beliefs, race, disabilities, sexual orientation etc. However, context still remains key. If you're not from a protected category, it doesn't mean you shouldn't ask for help. 

RG: Why do you think people troll and harass others online – is this a new phenomenon associated with our digital lifestyles, or has the behaviour always existed on different types of platforms and forums? For example, could we compare witch-hunting to cyber harassment

CA: I call cyber-harassment an ailment of our times. Things people may have said in passing before now leave a digital footprint. They are permanent and they stay there once you post them.

There is a general sense of disillusionment in our day and age. Social media blew up shortly after the 2008 crisis, and was a huge opportunity for democracy and equality, giving everyone a voice.

 Now that everyone has a voice, however, we have realised inequality and poverty are still here. We feel unfulfilled, and we voice our concerns online. There is a reason why the political rise of the underdogs - Brexit and Trump - was delivered on social media: People were voicing their discontent online. 

 I wouldn't necessarily call cyber-harassment a witch-hunt, because witch-hunts were a physical translation of rumours and fears related to a very specific group of women.

What I will say is that we have to be careful about what's published online: if you can say anything about a person or a group, and no one prevents you from that, then slowly you might think you can do anything to them too.

RG: Now that we are gaining greater awareness around mental health, and the things that motivate criminal behavior, are labels such as ‘disturbed’ and ‘psycho’ outdated?

They definitely are. We are also slowly realising that many mental health conditions don't translate into criminal behaviour. So yeah, definitely not a good way to look at this!

To connect with Carolina (in a friendly way), follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.