Publishers OR Platforms? Cyberbullying and Increased Accountability by Social Networks

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At a time when finally, the common man has been given a platform to speak his mind, to let his voice be heard and to give way to enormous change at the behest of millions of like-voices, we’ve also reached a pinnacle where suddenly the voice of the individual has created an environment of mass opinion that has led to anger, confrontation and ultimately hatred and violence.

This environment now threatens the very core upon which social media was built.

Cyberbullying Seems Inescapable

Countless examples in the last few years have created a movement to draw insights into this growing trend. Cindy Waitt, Executive Producer of Bully, the Movie and its accompanying Bully Project has made immense strides in drawing awareness to technology’s proliferation of cyberbullying’s pervasiveness.

However, this trend has continued into 2013.

It began with Rahteah Parsons. She was only 15 years old when she was sexually assaulted by 4 boys.

When a photo of the attack was circulated, Rahteah endured incessant mocking and harassment  by classmates, both in school and in social media. Unable to deal with the enduring humiliation, Rahteah attempted to take her own life April 7th of this year. She died a few days later.

She was only 17. For two years she suffered.

Then, earlier this month, tragedy struck as 14-year-old Hannah Smith, from Lutterworth in Leicestershire, hung herself after “repeated messages on encouraging her to kill herself and criticizing her appearance.” had already been reportedly linked to 4 other teenage deaths in the last 3 months.

More recently, Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist wrote on an article on this topic, When Politicians Get the Internet Wrong, the Internet Can be Ruthless“.

In it she broached the topic of ready-to-pounce free-speech bullying that inflicted the deaths of Hannah Smith and Daniel Perry. Caroline targeted politicians, the lawmakers:

This is not to suggest that politicians want to control the internet for cynical gain. But what these stories reveal is that too many of them still don’t understand it. They don’t understand its power, and they don’t understand its limitations. No one would claim that the internet creates democracy, merely that it gives it a super-charged shot of adrenaline.

Incidentally, Caroline also campaigned for women to reinstate Elizabeth Fry, a female non-royal, on the British five pound note and won. However, less than a week after the victory, she was met with an enormous wave of anger on Twitter, delivered through graphic threats of rape and death.

The messages she describes are both frightening and disturbing:

Get back to the kitchen, shut up, fuck off.

Somebody said: ‘All aboard the rape train.’ Some guy tweeted another guy asking if he wanted to join in raping me.

I’d do a lot worse than rape you. I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried [sic]. #10feetunder.

I will find you, and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do. You’re pathetic. Kill yourself. Before I do. #Godie.

This drove Caroline to flee her home, away from the ‘trolls’ as she described them.

Anonymity Breeds Contempt

In all three cases, the internet has evolved to an era that has given free reign to voice an opinion and use like-minded affiliations to express and further spread that opinion. It’s ever-more pervasive with sites like, and 4Chan that allow, even condone, anonymity… something that continues to perpetuate the bullying.

I saw this video from Christopher “Moot” Poole from TED. He speaks of 4Chan, his message board of 138MM+ users and over 1.3B posts has spawned the likes of Anonymous and LOL Cats (the latter of which is one of the least “harmful”).

He describes his site as raw and unfiltered, and allows users to be completely anonymous. He defends the lack of profiles in this way:

The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself. Those mistakes are attributed to who you are.

Anonymity, in contrast, allows people to be creative, and poke and prod and try things they might not otherwise. Anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way.

Anonymity also allows people to cowardly hide behind this veil of non-accountability and perpetuate obfuscation and hatred.

Caroline made her point in this article,

Twitter has enabled people to behave in a way they wouldn’t face to face.

If you saw this page on LinkedIn at the time of the Twitter attacks, #TwitterRapeThreats, Michael Fertik of called out for public support in recognizing the threat of violence on Twitter and calling for action to stop it:

Online or offline, there is simply no question that threats of sexual violence are terrifying, degrading and potentially criminal. They deserve the full measure of the law and the people targeted deserve protection.

And the leaders of social sharing platforms must do everything within their power to make sure spaces are safe for users – again, no question.

This isn’t the first time this has happened – indeed, it happens all the time, with less public fanfare. Nor is Twitter the only platform where it happens. But the fact that this is a perpetual narrative, playing endlessly on the repeat loop, disgusts me and it should outrage you, too. Enough is enough.

So what are your thoughts? Should laws change to impose harsher punishment on online harassment?

Whose Side Are the Platforms On?

In Caroline’s case, Twitter’s red tape prevented any action from being done.

If you’re someone who’s receiving . . . about 50 rape threats an hour, it’s just not practical to expect you to go and fill in this form every single tweet. They’re on the side of the abusers, not the victims, and they really, really need to get on the side of the victims,

…to which Twitter responded,

[We do] not actively monitor and will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances.

It did not specify what those circumstances were.

Twitter’s rules say Twitter takes no responsibility for offensive or menacing tweeting. It directs users to:

…contact your local authorities so they can accurately assess the content or behaviour for possible violations of local law.

Twitter’s law enforcement guidelines say it will release a user’s personal information only if requested under court order.

Facebook’s rules are no different from Twitter. It seems the rights of the violators seem to take precedent over the rights of the victims.

Social network privacy

I urge you to read this post, “Facebook Hacking and the Value of Social Currency” by ArCompany’s Danny Brown. Last year, Danny’s Facebook profile was hacked and the perpetrator proceeded to impersonate Danny by playing with his profile and attempting to discredit his reputation.

If you notice on Danny’s post, he speaks about the user’s need to take action via Security and Notification Settings.

The onus on the user to ensure they’re taking all the proper precautions is one step. Trying to identify the hacker required a court order and more long drawn-out red tape.

By the time all the procedures are put forward, the perpetrator would’ve probably taken the steps to further mask his/her true identity, making it increasingly difficult to find them. is making advancements to  protect its victims

Under scrutiny and pressure from interest groups, has mandated users to register with email in order to access the site. This mitigates the use of anonymous postings and provides access to user IP information. Moderation has expanded and users now have access to  tools to report abusive behaviour.

On, the census poll clearly vies for platforms to take on increasing responsibility for violations that occur within their own domains: 61% FOR; 39% AGAINST.

HOWEVER, THIS DOES NOT GO FAR ENOUGH…Ultimately, the user will continue to be accountable for reporting information to the authorities to get proper resolution. 

Cyberbullying and social networks

Will Platforms Be Forced to Redefine Themselves?

We can’t kill the messenger right? Wrong! If I am the purveyor of a medium that dispenses harm to others, then my accountability should be to protect the users of my platform.

If the original intent of the platform is free speech and open communication, does it make sense to uphold that purpose and defend it at the expense of those that fall victim to it?

On the other side of the coin, do I, as a user have to think twice and be more cautious of my behaviour ? That goes without saying.

This article clearly draws a distinction between a communications company and publisher and why social platforms may need to change:

Being a communications company rather than a publisher means significantly less responsibility and expense, because it can claim to be a platform for discussion, rather than a publisher of opinion which could be held to be libellous or threatening.

While the internet has NOT instigated the hatred, misogyny, or bullying that has seemed to run rampant in recent years, Caroline Criado-Perez remarks,

These are the hallmarks of humanity, and if we want to combat them, we need societal solutions.

The internet is woven into the very fabric of humanity. We will continue to define its path. The platforms must also evolve and adapt to the environments we are comfortable spending our time.

Otherwise they will die as well…

image: kid-josh
image: Jenny Levine
image: Jacey F. 

24 thoughts on “Publishers OR Platforms? Cyberbullying and Increased Accountability by Social Networks

  1. mickeygomez says:

    Thanks, Hessie, for an excellent post summing up so much of what has been happening online in recent days. I have so many thoughts about this issue – civility, the so-called freedom of speech defense and where that begins and ends – but what fascinates and truly horrifies me is to see the comments people make USING THEIR OWN NAMES on platforms like Twitter. That suggests to me one of two things: either people truly don’t get it (possible) or – worse – they do get it and simply don’t care.
    My fear is that as society teaches us through endless punditry that louder and longer “wins,” people are simply willing to take that next step and slip out from behind anonymous identities while still typing and saying hateful and hurtful things.
    Lots to think about. Thank you.

  2. T_Burrows says:

    This is a must read post by everyone who has an interest in the health, well-being and protection of the “greater good”.  Anonymity…what a joke.  Defending those that choose to be anonymous…I can’t possibly support that, especially if the choice to be anonymous is because your passion is to spread hate or lies.  There was an article going around not to long ago questioning the need to “police social networks.”  When left to it’s own devices, mankind is creating its own argument for such draconian measures to be put into place.  
    Great article Hessie! Thanks

  3. hessiej says:

    T_Burrows Thanks Tim. Anonymity is the biggest form of cowardice. The reason 4Chan and persists is because people can say whatever they want without repercussions. It’s like groupthink. Somehow individuals don’t feel as guilty as long as they know that “no one” else knows. Your point on Draconian measures is bang on. I just hope we don’t have to resort to that.

  4. Sarah Santacroce says:

    scary stuff, Danny. How do we protect our children? Twitter & Facebook don’t seem to care…

  5. Danny Brown says:

    I think Genevieve Lachance nailed it in a comment elsewhere, Sarah:
    “Unfortunately, there will always be networks that just don’t care. I’m not going to wait for networks or governments to make changes or set new rules! As a digital citizen, I’m going to do my part and report anything inappropriate, tell parents, warn kids, and supervise as much as I can what my own kids do online. As well, as parents we need to educate ourselves and stop putting our heads in the sand! We need to be digitally savvy parents because our kids are way smarter than we are when it comes to technology!”

  6. hessiej says:

    mickeygomez Mickey, I think you’ve touched on something interesting. As much fakery and anonymity that exists there are just as many people willing to be authentic to make a point. I suspect you’re right about why they’re doing it, but also consider those looking for their 15 seconds of fame. One thing I’m starting to realize as I read some of these horrid comments: rarely is anyone slapped on the wrist or prosecuted for making a comment. The deluge of the collective anger, built upon one another that becomes increasingly hateful is what makes this all the more disturbing. It’s what AmyMccTobin wrote about in one of her posts about the mob mentality. The sad thing is that it could be “anyone” you know who you may never suspect.

  7. AmyVernon says:

    Bravo, hessiej . I actually find some value in anonymity, but the problem is that human nature doesn’t allow for it to remain solely for good. I experienced a very small-scale version of the issue that Danny Brown did, with someone using my profile photo. Hundreds of people reported the profile for me (including someone who worked at Facebook), yet it still took 3 days for them to take down the other profile. In fact, it was only after Fast Company picked up my story that they did anything.
    The networks can’t simply throw up their hands and say, “We can’t control our users.” There are technologies coming on the market that will help them monitor things a lot more. They need to avail themselves of these.

  8. Danny Brown says:

    AmyVernon hessiej It kinda reminds me of the young kid that hacked Zuckerberg’s Facebook wall recently, to highlight their security flaws. Instead of spending billions on photo apps, how about making your platform a safe place to visit?

  9. bowden2bowden says:

    Well done and Hessie and I will do my part spreading this must read! “Cyberbullying Seems Inescapable,” I have hope that this is not true but at the rate that we see it, my hope is a bit dimmed. The mastery of “sub-texting” another tactic to be aware of…If I can plug,, work and awareness continues!

  10. hessiej says:

    Danny Brown AmyVernon Let’s look at the economic side of the issue. How much more will platforms need to spend to make these platforms safer? I’m sure the platforms are also looking at it from the standpoint of user churn. Perhaps the content will be cleaner, and the behaviour will be acceptable but will the content be scrutinized to a level that makes even the innocent wary. It is a profound change that will affect user retention, growth and ad revenue.

  11. hessiej says:

    bowden2bowden Randy, the one word that doesn’t fit here is “rational”…. because humans aren’t rational. It’s much different having a debate face to face because the context is different. But in the comfort of your own home and the protection of your four walls, people will more likely speak their mind and be less fearful of circumstances.

  12. Danny Brown says:

    hessiej You know, in an ironic way, that could be a monetization solution for them. Think of the anti-malware and security software you pay for your home and work computers – could SocNets charge an annual fee to pay a security team to track and protect? That’s not to say they shouldn’t be protecting users now, but if it was a dedicated service… AmyVernon

  13. Sarah Santacroce says:

    very true ! Need to have a talk with my 10 year old. It’s still early days, but it’s important

  14. AmyMccTobin says:

    Superb, much needed post Hessie.  Recently my friend Mo got into an argument on FB with a person who was pretending to be a friend of his, including setting up a business page in the friend’s name.  When Mo called him out, he began making threats.  They escalated to threats against Mo’s family.  The troll then got Mo’s email address and threatened him that way.  Getting no help from Facebook, Mo went to the police.  It took them a few months, but they tracked the troll down and arrested him.  Thank goodness for a dedicated small town police force willing to go the extra mile.
    So, here’s the question: If it is illegal in real life to threaten someone, why is it ok to do it online? Why are the networks willing to let people break laws on their platforms?  The free speech/creative/let it all hang argument holds NO WATER.   Since it appears quite obvious that without massive PR campaigns against individual networks, they won’t change, we can either do that, OR, we can turn to the legal system to fix a very broken ‘social system.’

  15. hessiej says:

    AmyMccTobin I completely agree with you. Any potential threat you make in person, on the phone  is considered assault. Apparently, online is a different story. I saw this article: written last year that alluded to revising the criminal code to include the increasing number of these threats that occur online. Funnily enough, the article goes on to state the responsibility of the individual to mitigate occurrences by being careful about what he/she posts. Something has to change and you’re correct in assuming that it’s more probable governing laws need to mandate these changes. It goes beyond privacy — it’s now about our security.

  16. […] Earlier this week, my ArCompany colleague Hessie Jones wrote a damning blog post on the state of social networks and their approaches to cyberbullying. […]

  17. […] “ An in-depth look at cyberbullying and the accountability that social networks must take when combating this spreading disease of hatred and hurt.” It began with Rahteah Parsons. She was only 15 years old when she was sexually assaulted by 4 boys. When a photo of the attack was circulated, Rahteah endured incessant mocking and harassment by classmates, both in school and in social media. Unable to deal with the enduring humiliation, Rahteah attempted to take her own life April 7th of this year. She died a few days later. She was only 17. For two years she suffered. Then, earlier this month, tragedy struck as 14-year-old Hannah Smith, from Lutterworth in Leicestershire, hung herself after “repeated messages on Ask.fmencouraging her to kill herself and criticizing her appearance.” had already been reportedly linked to 4 other teenage deaths in the last 3 months.  […]

  18. philiprose123 says:

    Please note: Hannah Smith is an example of digital self harm.

    Rehteah Parsons hanged herself 10 minutes after being dumped by her boyfriend.
    The thing about social media is knowing the difference between what is true and what is myth.

  19. jaklinbadr2013 says:

    very true ! Need to have a talk with my 10 year old. It’s still early days, but it’s important  +  +  + +   + +  +  +

  20. jaklinbadr2013 says:

  21. jaklinbadr2013 says:

  22. elzahra66 says:


  23. roneyshaheen says:

    Superb, much needed post Hessie.  Recently my friend Mo got into an
    argument on FB with a person who was pretending to be a friend of his,
    including setting up a business page in the friend’s name.

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