In response to recent events involving online bullying and its resultant suicide at Rutgers, Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision committee sponsored an open forum last Thursday, Nov. 4, to address issues of harassment, privacy, and anonymity on the Internet. Extensive discussion was led by panelists that included representatives from student affairs, information technology operations, the University attorney’s office, and the student body, among others.
The forum, attended by faculty and students, served as a means for the University both to address concerns regarding online relations and to educate attendees on the legal and ethical implications of employing technology to bully other people anonymously.
“The anonymity of the Internet is just so dangerous,” said Shannon French, the Inamori Professor of Ethics and forum moderator. “People are emboldened by anonymity.”
Recounting her time in grade school, French noted that she still remembers the face and name of a girl who bullied her. In a strange way, she said, this identifying information humanizes the bully. And it does likewise with the victim, meaning that face-to-face bullying is likely to be less vicious (and less frequent) than its online variant today.
Panelist Joel Kraft, director of CWRU’s IT operations group, contended that anonymous communication can be “useful,” as when an individual seeks important but personally embarrassing information on the Internet. Though careful to avoid placing blame on anonymity, Kraft also acknowledged the minor annoyances he’s noticed while browsing the Case Forum, often caused by anonymous and disrespectful students.
Case Forum is moderated, however; though it tolerates profanity and the occasional rude response, it is able to efficiently remove personal attacks or particularly unhelpful information. This puts it in contrast to other communication media like Facebook and Twitter, social networking sites where forms of bullying can manifest very publicly (although less anonymously) in unmoderated modes of discourse.
Peter Poulos, currently serving as CWRU’s chief litigation counsel, suggested that individuals must exercise more responsibility when communicating online. He cited an East Stroudsburg University professor who requested the services of “a discrete [sic] hitman” on her Facebook page in March–implying she was prepared to have her students killed. She was later suspended for the comments. Poulos used the example to demonstrate that even “very intelligent” (or at least very educated) people occasionally make irresponsible mistakes when they communicate on the Internet.
“Have we become a little unreasonable?” asked French, questioning whether it wasn’t obvious that the professor’s remarks had been made jocosely. “Are we overcorrecting?”
Poulos explained that action taken in response to such social gaffes has canted toward the more conservative, especially when dealing with online expression. In the case of CWRU, he said, the University is obligated to “provide a safe, non-discriminatory environment for our students,” and must either take immediate action or investigate the event to ensure that no harm is done.
“Bullying is illegal and universities have an obligation to stop it,” Poulos said. “We have to take affirmative steps. What can we do? Can we just ignore it? No.”
“There are policies there to deal with the issues,” said Don Kamalsky, referring to both sexual and nonsexual forms of online harassment. Kamalsky is the associate vice president of student affairs and has encountered numerous University cases in which bullying was facilitated by technology. “Tweets, texts, and blogs have all appeared in judicial cases,” he said. “The stuff that I’ve had to read is appalling.”
That appalling stuff has included both threats and “terribly inappropriate sexual comments,” Kamalsky said.
But tweets, texts, and blog entries are both public and non-anonymous. In lieu of social websites that require a persistent identity or personal information, a niche market for public but anonymous expression has, unsurprisingly, sprung up. Some of these sites are built specifically to foster anonymous gossip among undergraduates.
“People can just post anything,” said junior Disha Haque. “I refer to it as utter trash.”
Haque, the vice president of administration for the Panhellenic Council, discovered posts and comments made about her on such a website.
“I was appalled,” she said. Haque explained that she was able to have the comments removed by filling out an online form with the appropriate request.
This, she claims, makes the popular website more tolerable–though no less trashy–than its former iterations, from which hurtful or untruthful posts could not be removed by request.
The particular website in question is probably an extreme example, and most communication on the Internet is less anonymous and less insensitive than these cases may suggest. But even in more common online social venues, it can be difficult to determine what qualifies as genuine malice and what is simply an irresponsible use of language.
After the panelists’ initial discussion, an attending student asked how one knows how to differentiate between bullying and bad taste in online interactions.
“The bad taste things for me are pretty low-level,” Kamalsky said. “When it becomes bullying… it becomes aggressive. And is it repeated? Does it violate respect? These things become very serious, very quickly.”
Kamalsky also warned that comments made in a medium as public as the Internet will inevitably cause greater detriment. “Threats taken and broadcasted change from [saying] ‘I was just kidding’ to something we really find frightening,” he said.
“There really are some callous people in the world,” Haque told those attending.
Her first-hand experience of that callousness does not preclude her hope that people will learn to be more mindful of what they say online.
“I just want people to remember that you never know who you’re writing about,” she said. “You never know what their mental state is.”