from the a-problematic-issue-addressed-with-progressively-worse-ideas dept
The recent suicides of two teenagers, Hannah Smith and Retaeh Parsons, have prompted officials to take actions to crack down on cyberbullying. Smith committed suicide after extensive bullying on ask.fm, a social Q&A site that skews heavily towards teen users. Parsons’ case is a little more troubling, as it involves an alleged rape and the extensive circulation of pictures of the attack.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron responded to Smith’s suicide by calling for a boycott of “vile site” ask.fm, making the same convenient mistake many politicians do — blaming a website for the actions of a small percentage of users. Fortunately, Cameron didn’t call for any further legislation, pointing out that laws dealing with harassment (online and offline) are already on the books in the UK.
Ask.fm responded by stating it would hire more moderators and make more of an effort to track and prevent abuse. It also opened an investigation into the activity on Smith’s account and returned with some very interesting findings. According to its investigation, 98% of the messages “aimed” at Hannah Smith’s account came from her own IP address. Smith’s father has, quite reasonably, asked the site owners to substantiate this claim. He’s also asked why they haven’t come forward with information on the other 2%.
While ask.fm’s claim about where the abusive messages originated seems bizarre, it’s not an impossibility.
Scott Freeman, founder of The Cybersmile Foundation, said: “It’s very easy to get carried away in this circle of online self-abuse when you’re alone in your room. [Children] check it, and keep checking, and it evolves into a kind of self-harm.
“We’ve seen instances where people have actually lined themselves up for abuse, posting a question like “do you think I’m pretty?” knowing that they’ll get torn apart. What we’re dealing with now is a completely new concept. It’s the hate that’s resonating through all of our social media coming through to our youth.”
And what happens if the prompts are ignored, or the abusive answers are simply not coming fast enough? Or, as Hazel Robinson theorizes over at the New Statesman, what if the site becomes a vehicle to express self-hatred?
You see, I can think of maybe four or five young people I’ve encountered on Tumblr who I would (non-judgementally, analytically) suspect have sent themselves anonymous abuse messages in order to express their self-hatred, attack themselves through the abstraction of answering anonymous aggression. It’s easy to do – just have an additional browser where you’re not signed in to Tumblr and leave your inbox open to anonymous things. Cleaner than a razorblade, its simple to express your self-loathing through an avatar of external hatred.
This isn’t to say that Hannah Smith attacked herself, and absent any evidence from ask.fm, there’s no reason to believe she did. But the possibility remains, and it’s probably not as unlikely as we parents might hope.
Parson’s death, on the other hand, has prompted a huge overreaction by Nova Scotia’s government, which rushed through a very terrible piece of cyerbullying legislation.The new law puts the power completely in the hands of the accuser, removes any sort of objective standard and levies harsh penalties against the accused without allowing them to defend themselves at any point.
Once again, a tragedy has resulted in legislation that makes things worse for internet users in Nova Scotia (the bill does not address regular bullying), while ignoring the laws already in place to deal with the incident that began the entire cycle.
Fortunately, the reaction to the new law has been overwhelmingly negative. Putting aside the fact that legislators often enjoy a good coattail ride, the responses from elsewhere in Canada seem to indicate no one’s interested in subjecting themselves to this legislative disaster.
A National Post editorial points out just how much harm this law is capable of doing.
One might hope that the law will only be used in serious cases, but that’s hardly to its credit: Legislators shouldn’t be writing laws they don’t want enforced. We are talking about fundamental rights and freedoms: Taking away someone’s phone or banning him from the Internet represents a serious impediment to education and employment. Access to a lengthy and costly appeals process is a woefully inadequate safeguard against abuses.
The Toronto Star’s editorial isn’t much kinder.
Well-intentioned though it is, it unwisely defines cyberbullying in overly broad terms as “any electronic communication . . . that is intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.” The Star gets letters to the editor every day whose very point is to cause humiliation and distress to people with whom the writers disagree, if not to undermine their self-esteem and reputation. Are all of these people cyberbullies? There’s something called free speech in this country. The new law crowds it.
Nova Scotia’s law is so unpopular finding positive editorials is nearly impossible. National Post columnist Chris Selley expresses as much towards the end of a recent article:
And Sun Media’s Anthony Furey joins a growing consensus of reasonable commentators in deploring Nova Scotia’s absurd new anti-cyber-bullying law. (If anyone’s seen a column or editorial supporting it, we’d love a heads up.)
Well, here’s one.
The “Editorial Staff” at the Moose Jaw Times Herald has offered its support of Nova Scotia’s law in one of the weakest editorials I’ve ever read. Fortunately, it’s also very short. The editorial doesn’t address any of the issues inherent with the bill, spending most of its time telling us how tragic suicide is and that bullying, especially cyberbullying, is bad and needs to stop.
When it’s done spoon-feeding readers the obvious, it wraps up its non-argument with this.
It’s time the governments of Canada go to bat for their youth, and place legal barriers into the mix, as [Wayne] MacKay suggests. Such legislation could help prevent further suicides in the same ilk as Parsons, Todd, and Hubley.
The Wayne MacKay quoted here is a law professor at Dalhousie University and is heading up a push for this legislation to be enacted across Canada. One would think a law professor would know the difference between good laws and bad laws and not actively pursue enacting such a problematic piece of legislation. (Then again, we have a president with a background in constitutional law, and that clearly hasn’t resulted in constitutional rights being protected.)
The op-ed is finally put out of its misery by the final sentence, an insipid cluster of words that can barely muster the enthusiasm to get to the ending punctuation.
It certainly couldn’t hurt.
Yeah, actually it could. For several examples, see nearly every other editorial written about the new cyberbullying bill. Anything recommended by the half-hearted phrase “It certainly couldn’t hurt” is something obviously devoid of positive attributes. When you have to resort to using negative statements in order to “praise” something, it’s time to reconsider your support.
Filed Under: cyberbullying, hannah smith, retaeh parsons, suicide