Three Approaches to Dealing with Cyberbullying

In this important article in The Atlantic, author and Slate editor Emily Bazelon reports on how an anonymous student at a Middletown, Connecticut middle school bullied fellow students and stirred up trouble using a Facebook page titled “Let’s Start Drama.” Calling herself Drama Queen, this student “knew exactly how to use the Internet to rile her audience,” says Bazelon. “She hovered over them in cyberspace like a bad fairy, with the power to needle kids into ending friendships and starting feuds and fistfights… Wrapped in her cloak of anonymity, she was free to pass along cruel gossip without personal consequences. She started by posting a few idle rumors, and when that gained her followers, she asked them to send her private messages relaying more gossip, promising not to disclose the source. Which girl had just lost her virginity? What boy had asked a girl to sext him a nude photo?” Before long, Drama Queen had an audience of 500, many of whom had follow-up comments on the rumors. She pitted students against each other by posting side-by-side photos of girls and asking who was hotter and photos of boys asking, “Who would win a fight?” (this post resulted in an actual punch-out after school). 

Two social workers based in the school heard about Let’s Start Drama and the conflict it was causing. A quick Internet search revealed that there were two dozen imitator Facebook pages hosted by other anonymous students at the school with titles like Middletown Hos and Middletown Trash Talk. All this was a clear violation of Facebook’s rules on anonymity and bullying, and the social workers followed Facebook’s policy for filing a complaint. No response. They filed another complaint. Again, no follow-up. Months passed and Let’s Start Drama and the other Facebook pages continued to wreak havoc in the school.

The summer after her visits to the school, Bazelon traveled to Facebook headquarters in California to see how the company was dealing with problems like this among its more than one billion members (2.5 billion pieces of content are posted daily). She spoke with the 27-year-old manager of the Hate and Harassment Team and watched as workers scrolled through hundreds of reports about bullying and hate speech on their computers. Their policy was to accept first-person complaints by victims of bullying and harassment. “If the content is about you, and you’re not famous, we don’t try to decide whether it’s actually mean,” he explained. “We just take it down.” Third-party reports, such as the ones made by the social workers in Connecticut or by parents who believe their children are being bullied, are treated on a case-by-case basis. 

Bazelon watched one team member at work. He took only a second or two to decide whether to honor a complaint or ignore it. Asked whether it might be a good idea to take longer on a particularly tricky complaint, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Your average decision time is a second or two, so 30 seconds would be a really long time.” Bazelon had him locate the Let’s Start Drama page and look at the history of complaints, especially the fact that the page was anonymous – a clear violation of Facebook rules. They could see the multiple complaints that had been filed, all correctly entered, yet there was a notation on the screen that future reports about the content should be ignored. “Someone made a mistake,” said the Facebook worker. “This profile should have been disabled. Actually, two different reps made the same mistake, two different times.” With a click of his cursor, he deleted Let’s Start Drama.

In fairness, Facebook is trying to do better at handling third-party complaints, but it’s difficult to devise algorithms that spot offensive content – and the volume of complaints is staggering. Facebook is also trying to build into its complain process suggestions to young people to reach out to adults in the real world for support, and also to complain directly to the people posting the objectionable material (they typically take down posts and photos if asked). 

Bazelon’s next visit was to Henry Lieberman, an M.I.T. computer scientist with expertise in artificial intelligence. Lieberman, who was bullied for being overweight when he was in middle school (“Hank the Tank”), has analyzed online harassment and found that bullies are remarkably uncreative: 95 percent of insults deal with just six issues: appearance, intelligence, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and social acceptance/rejection. He and his colleagues have created a knowledge base, BullySpace, that can successfully flag 80 percent of offensive language in social media websites. It can also spot when a post is going viral and when there’s a pileup of comments aimed at one person (this often happens to LGBT students around prom time). The software can also trace a viral message back to its originator. 

Lieberman’s software has great potential, but no sites have picked it up yet. He’s somewhat ambivalent about using BullySpace to report students to the authorities or ban them from using social media. It might be better, he believes, to use the software to spot offensive messages and, when the kid tries to send one, have pop-up messages saying, “Waiting for 60 seconds to post” with an X for delete, or “That sounds harsh! Are you sure you want to send that?” or a reminder that the message is about to go to thousands of people. Lieberman is also exploring automated messages that link victims of cyberbullying to pages with suggestions and help – for example, “Wow! That sounds nasty! Click here for help”, or an explanation of how sexual harassment works and strategies for dealing with it. (Facebook has messages like this for students who post suicidal messages.)

“My position is that technology can’t stop bullying,” Lieberman concludes. “This is a people problem. But technology can make a difference, either for the negative or the positive. And we’re behind in paying attention to how to make the social-network universe a better place, from a technological standpoint.” Facebook is moving toward a Lieberman-type approach: instead of banishing kids, they’re warning rule-breakers and temporarily disabling their pages. It turns out that young people’s Facebook pages have real value to them and starting a new page means starting all over with the process of building up “friends.” Asked whether they’d rather be suspended from school or from Facebook, most middle- and high-school students say the former. 

Bazelon’s next line of research was Anonymous, a shadowy group of hackers who act as vigilantes on the Internet. Best known for attacks on the Syrian Ministry of Defense, the Vatican, the FBI, the CIA, MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, Anonymous recently came to the rescue of a 12-year-old girl who was being viciously attacked on Twitter by a group of older boys. This started when the girl followed the Twitter feed of a 17-year-old boy she didn’t know and then stopped following him because he posted remarks she found rude. The boy took offense and he and three other boys went after the girl, repeatedly threatening to rape her and telling her to commit suicide. 

Although the girl lived some distance from the boys, she was genuinely scared, and her cry for help over Twitter reached a young woman named Katherine. This was around the time a Canadian teenager named Amanda Todd killed herself after vicious cyberbullying, and Katherine contacted “Ash”, an Anonymous operative, who was repulsed by the boys’ tweets. Ash was able to find the boy’s identities and pinpoint the high schools they attended in Abilene, Texas. He gathered up their tweets to the girl and released them on the Web, along with the boys’ names and the schools they attended (this is called a “dox”), accompanied by this message: “I am sick of seeing people who think they can get away with breaking someone’s confidence and planting seeds of self-hate into someone’s head. What gives you the f------ right to attack someone to such a breaking point? If you are vile enough to do so and stupid enough to do so on a public forum, such as a social website, then you should know this… We will find you and we will highlight your despicable behavior for all to see.” Ash also sent the material to Abilene school officials. 

At first, the boys railed at Anonymous on Twitter, and one denied his involvement in the most vicious messages. But soon two of the boys began sending remorseful tweets that seemed genuine. Bazelon contacted one of the boys to ask him how he felt about the encounter with Anonymous. After some initial denial and push-back (why hadn’t the girl blocked the messages?), he wrote in an e-mail, “When i found out she was hurt by it i had felt horrible. I honestly don’t want to put anyone down. i just like to laugh and it was horrible to know just how hurt she was… It was shocking to see how big [Anonymous was] and what they do.” 

What did Abilene school officials do? One local superintendent said he had been uncertain about the Anonymous material at first, but when he received an anonymous local phone call urging him to take action against the boys, he turned the material over to the police. An officer investigated and concluded that the boys couldn’t have harmed the girl (because she lived far away). “If you can’t show a disruption at school, the courts tell us, that’s none of our business,” he said. The superintendent, however, was grateful for what Anonymous had done. “I don’t have the technical expertise or the time to keep track of every kid on Facebook or Twitter or whatever,” he said. “It was unusual, sure, but we would have never done anything if they hadn’t notified us.” 

Bazelon notes that Katherine and Ash don’t have professional experience working with teens. “But reading through the hate-filled tweets, I couldn’t help thinking that justice Anonymous-style is better than no justice at all,” she says. “And while sites like Facebook and Twitter are still working out ways to address harassment comprehensively, I find myself agreeing with Ash that ‘someone needs to teach these kids to be mindful, and anyone doing that is a good thing.’” Ash and Katherine have set up #OpAntiBully, which provides resource lists and links to abuse-report forms and allows people to come together to report an abusive user, bombard the offender with angry tweets, or offer support to the victim.

“In a better online world,” concludes Bazelon, “it wouldn’t be up to Anonymous hackers to swoop in on behalf of vulnerable teenagers. But social networks still present tricky terrain for young people, with traps that other kids spring for them. My own view is that, as parents, we should demand more from these sites, by holding them accountable for enforcing their own rules. After all, collectively, we have consumer power here – along with our kids, we’re the site’s customers.”

“How to Stop the Bullies” by Emily Bazelon in The Atlantic, March 2013 (Vol. 311, #2, p. 82-90), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/how-to-stop-bullies/309217/

From the Marshall Memo #474

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In our Vermont district our Insurance company (which is made up of a coalition of School Districts in partnership with the Vermont NEA) has started providing cyber insurance. This is a problem that isn't going to go away! Education is the key along with clear guidelines and expectations for everyone that goes online.

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