The problem of bullying in the internet age

The desire to wield power over other people and to get enjoyment from doing so are unpleasant traits. While the structure of complex modern society requires hierarchies that have people in positions in authority over others, the exercise of power often extends well beyond the demands of one’s job and some people seem to actually enjoy having others be submissive to them and belittling and humiliating them.

This leads to situations of abuse in both the workplace and the home. But another manifestation of the desire is that of bullying that can occur outside of institutional structures. Hazing and other initiation rites are instances in which bullying is actually institutionalized and normalized, and not seen as aberrant behavior.

Maria Konnikova writes that while the phenomenon of bullying is ubiquitous, it used to be that there was a rural-urban distinction in that in the larger urban setting it was possible to be more anonymous or change one’s environment to escape from it, whereas people in more rural areas had less opportunity to escape. But the internet has changed that.

In some ways, when it comes to bullying, the Internet has made the world more rural. Before the Internet, bullying ended when you withdrew from whatever environment you were in. But now, the bullying dynamic is harder to contain and harder to ignore. If you’re harassed on your Facebook page, all of your social circles know about it; as long as you have access to the network, a ceaseless stream of notifications leaves you vulnerable to victimhood. Bullying may not have become more prevalent—in fact, a recent review of international data suggests that its incidence has declined by as much as ten per cent around the world. But getting away from it has become more difficult.

Adult bullying on the internet or ‘cyberbullying’ has become a problem with public shaming campaigns and “the rise of cyberbrigades which unite in virtual outrage, on Twitter, Reddit, or elsewhere online, to disparage someone’s words or behavior.” What drives this behavior is the same attitude that drives the school or playground bully.

Participants often feel that their abusive actions flow from justified outrage—but all bullies think that their behavior is justified. “We know from moral disengagement work that all bullies feel morally justified in their actions,” Swearer pointed out. Ask people why they bully, and they rarely say, “Because I can.” They say, “Because I need to.” Bullies believe they are teaching someone a lesson; they claim that their victims are, through their own actions or faults, asking for it, and that they need to be called out and corrected. “They say it’s retaliatory. ‘I just retaliated,’ ” Swearer said. “They build narratives of their behaviors.” Many of the bullies Swearer has dealt with don’t seem to have realized that what they did was bullying: they demonstrate “a lack of insight and self-awareness.” Instead, they see themselves as righteous crusaders.

When I was both a student and later a faculty member in the university in Sri Lanka I had an ongoing campaign against hazing which was a serious problem that sometimes ended even in death. When I challenged my fellow students as to why they were hazing (the term used there was ‘ragging’) the new students, they would reply that the new students needed to be taken down a peg, made to realize that they were not superior to others, not be shy, become part of the group, and other such reasons. My response that people had a right to be left alone, not join any group, and to act stuck up if they wanted to fell on deaf ears.

And that was only with physical bullying that one could escape by just making oneself scarce or hiding in the crowd. Now bullying is much harder to counter.

In short, the picture that’s emerged suggests that the Internet has made bullying both harder to escape and harder to identify. It has also, perhaps, made bullies out of some of us who would otherwise not be. We are immersed in an online world in which consequences often go unseen—and that has made it easier to deceive ourselves about what we are doing. The first step to preventing bullying among adults, therefore, might be simple: introspection.

The idea that the internet might be actually enabling bullying behavior and creating new bullies is worrisome.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I was bullied in school -- primary school -- to the point that I still literally bear the scar where the knife blade went in. I couldn’t simply opt out of school, and I had no recourse. I couldn’t “make myself scarce” or “hide in the crowd” and I say a hearty fuck you to anyone who offers those as a solution to being the ongoing victim of conniving, devious weapon-wielding sociopaths. I have the same response to anyone who peddles the lie that “bullies are all cowards and if you stand up to them they’ll back down”. Tried that. Scar. Thanks. Tried reporting it, or as the teachers characterised it, “telling tales”.

    Today, in 2016, I’m being bullied on Twitter. Lots of people are ragging on me constantly, belittling my views, commenting on my personal appearance, hygience, sexuality, choice of music and so on.

    Or not, possibly. I have no idea. Possibly nobody even knows who I am on Twitter.

    I have discovered that Twitter use is optional (who knew?) and I’ve opted not to use it. Bully me there, please, do. Or on Facebook, or Reddit -- so far I’ve not been threatened with prosecution for not using those sites. Or here -- bully me here on FTB. Call me names, ban me from posting. That’d be great, compared to the experience of being actually properly bullied in the real world.

    If one effect of the internet is to convince bullies that bullying online is more effective that waiting in an alley for someone every single afternoon and beating them or even holding them down and methodically sticking a blade into them, I regard that as a massive win for technology and I applaud it. More online “bullying”, please.

  2. Knight in Sour Armor says

    Yup, even had a significant bullying episode here on FtB. There’s no escaping the bullying.

  3. oolon says

    If one effect of the internet is to convince bullies that bullying online is more effective that waiting in an alley for someone every single afternoon and beating them or even holding them down and methodically sticking a blade into them, I regard that as a massive win for technology and I applaud it. More online “bullying”, please.

    I’m sure the people dead from online bullying will be pleased to hear that you think it’s a joke! Can you not understand what is no problem for you might be for others, or even that something you’ve not experienced is maybe worse than you think?

  4. deepak shetty says

    Participants often feel that their abusive actions flow from justified outrage

    I think this applies to a good number of us 🙁 .

  5. nahuati says

    sonofrojblake @ 1:
    I’m very sorry to hear of the bullying you experienced. I wish there were a way that I could take away the scars you mention. Thinking of you.

    Knight in Sour Armor @ 2:
    Indeed. Hopefully people who have done the bullying have learned from their mistakes and can see common ground where possible. I try to remain optimistic.

  6. mnb0 says

    Like @1 I was bullied as a kid. Like @1 I avoid facebook, twitter etc. I have been bullied at two fora -- and quit before it even got remotely serious.
    It’s the main difference indeed. I can quit. As a kid I couldn’t.

  7. File Thirteen says

    @sonofrojblake: I believe online bullying can be hell for some -- people don’t kill themselves lightly. But I don’t mean to in any way belittle your experiences. What you went through also sounds like hell.

  8. Randall Lee says

    As long as we allow society to be organized by intimidation and violence why should we expect our children or adults to be any different?

    Most children are taught at home, indirectly and directly, that those in positions of ‘AUTHORITY’ get what they want by intimidation, coercion and violence. This is true whether it be parents, teachers, gangs, or government.
    Ultimately ‘Authority’ is the idea that man can act as God and through the concept of jurisdiction dictate and create what law is.

    Government is a false religion/belief system by which most people have been deceptively indoctrinated.. It is mind control. An endorsement of earthly authority equals an endorsement of slavery. Simply put it is the brilliant idea that we give a small group of people the right to kidnap, imprison, harass, steal from, and kill people so that we can be protected from people that kidnap, imprison, harass, steal from, and kill people.

    And we wonder why bullying exists. Bullying is the least of our problems.

  9. Johnny Vector says

    Hey Randall! I’m guessing you have never watched a community of chimpanzees attack a neighboring group, kill them, and eat their flesh. Because they do that. Do you think that is because they are taught to by an indoctrinating government? Or could it be that chimps have a natural violent streak?

    And then, how different are humans from chimpanzees?

  10. John Morales says

    Johnny Vector, you’re not actually disputing Randall Lee, contrary to your ostensible point.

    (Humans and chimps are different species, notwithstanding their common ancestors)

    As for bullying, it’s most evidently (in my experience) a human trait; that its instantiations depend on the medium of interaction is hardly surprising.

  11. StevoR says

    Been bullied and attacked myself.

    Many times, many places -- including here on FTB. Still don’t know he answer but sure know that bullying sucks.

    I try not to be a bully in response. Have failed at that at some times and points in my life. Not proud of that. That’s all really.

  12. John Morales says

    StevoR, you’re weak if you imagine you’ve been bullied here. Bah.

    There is no power imbalance, as one salient criterion — and as another, you can always recluse yourself.

    (FWIW, I’ve had more people more furiously dogpiling on me than you ever have!)

  13. File Thirteen says

    Arguments can become very heated over topics made in public forums, to the point where they sometimes degrade into personal attacks, but I would agree with John that bullying is over and above that. If a poster sought to reply to someone’s every comment with abuse and/or an attempt to humiliate them then that might be bullying. Perhaps you do feel you’ve been bullied StevoR, but you are also a very prolific poster, and people seem more naturally inclined to write out of a need to rebut a remark than to support one.

  14. Randall Lee says

    I would agree Damion. And this sort of discourse can often be fruitful in a variety of ways, even resulting in modifying what has become accepted as normal.
    There is however no logical place for vulgar name calling as this never results in the merging of understandings which should be our primary goal.
    Frankly calling a spade a spade on the other hand should be completely acceptable, (never to be construed as bullying), even where the impossibility of a meeting of minds thereby becomes inevitable.

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