Workplace Solutions: Cyberbullying
Three months ago, my employer asked me to establish LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. I couldn’t believe my good fortune in getting paid to create and maintain a social network.
Although I created a somewhat sedate LinkedIn profile, I followed everyone’s advice to let my personality shine through on Twitter. At first I had a lot of fun with Twitter and followed as many feeds as I could. I was excited when the individuals I followed in turn followed me. Soon I was up to 400 followers.
Then I posted several Tweets about my weight-loss efforts and received snarky Tweets in return. I immediately apologized, but the Tweets to and about me became progressively nastier with some individuals sending insulting Tweets several times a day. Checking my Twitter feed changed from a fun to a horrid part of my workday until I asked my employer if I could delete my profiles. She was disappointed but understood. I have a need to make sense of what happened and why my Twitter followers turned into a lynch mob.
Cyberbullies attack those they perceive as vulnerable. When beloved comedian Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda posted a heartfelt tribute to her dad on Twitter, anonymous Twitter users sent her graphic photos of dead men’s bodies they said were her father’s.
Why? According to social researchers, five factors make the Internet a bully’s paradise.
On the Internet, pseudonyms and usernames allow cyberbullies to conceal their real identities. This personal anonymity, coupled with membership in a faceless crowd, can create a situation in which individuals sink to the lowest common denominator of behavior.
In one famous example, trick-or-treaters were invited to take sweets left next to cash on a table in the front hall of a home. Eighty percent of those who arrived in groups and wore masks stole the money in contrast to 8 percent of the trick-or-treaters who arrived singly and without face masks.
Next, online inhibition, the loosening or complete abandonment of social inhibitions present in normal face-to-face interactions, can release needs and emotions that dwell below the surface.
This emotional catharsis allows some Internet users to become less guarded and more willing to open up to others. Disinhibition can also release toxic emotions that dwell beneath the surface, as when a Tweeter with repressed anger spews venom online.
The fear of reprisal squashes unbridled personal attacks in face-to-face interactions. On the Internet, many freely voice inflammatory opinions without worrying they’ll lose a job or friend. If they go too far and get counterattacked, they can simply press reset and not log in again under that username or in that forum. The Internet, in effect, empowers bullies and exponentially increases their power and reach.
It’s “not personal”
Because Internet users can’t see each other, they don’t always consider those they Tweet or comment about as persons, allowing themselves to dissociate cruel remarks from the hurt these postings cause. A recent University of Haifa study revealed those who had to maintain eye contact were half as likely to be hostile as those who had their eyes hidden. Noam Lapiot-Lefler, the study’s lead author, believes eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings.”
Further, the Internet’s magnitude and speed lends itself to the short-term thrill of impact on and reaction from thousands of viewers. This both increases the rewards and lessens the consequences for those who unleash heat-of-the-moment hostility without reflection, accountability or self-censorship.
Internet trolls, those who sow discord by starting arguments or posting inflammatory comments with the deliberate intent of provoking emotional responses, feed off others’ comments. Like drug addicts, trolls live for the immediate flame-war thrill and flock together. When one troll attacks, another follows and soon their targets finds themselves in the Internet’s toxic underbelly. This feeding frenzy parallels the criminological Broken Windows Theory that posits unrepaired vandalism triggers further vandalism.
The answer? Like you, Zelda Williams temporarily stepped out of social media. When you return, you may want to limit those you follow and allow to follow you.
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies and individuals to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Their services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews and organizational strategy services. You can reach Lynne @ www.thegrowthcompany.com, via her workplace 911/411 blog, www.workplacecoachblog.com or @lynnecurry10 on twitter.