Meeting the bullies

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Someone talks online about an issue that concerns them, and the anonymous attacks begin. “You’re stupid,” one poster sneers. “And probably ugly.”

Someone else, using a fake name, joins the fun, belittling the original poster’s education, weight and even their spelling.

Pretty soon, it’s a veritable pile-on, with more and more attacks, all from behind the easy protection of false names and the anonymous wasteland of the Internet.

A textbook case of Facebook bullying?

The kind of Internet abuse that brings attacks right into someone’s bedroom, the kind that we’re supposed to be concerned about, the attacks that have led to teen suicides?

No, this is not social media. Not chat rooms or forums, either.

No, these are comments on pretty much any media website.

It’s anonymous, hateful and petty. It’s bullying, plain and simple.

And the simple fact of it is that, if you’re not willing to put your name to it — your real name — it’s just another kind of night-drawn graffiti.

Cue the aggrieved claims that someone’s freedom of speech is being abridged.

Give me a break.

You have the freedom to stand up and say whatever you like — it’s part of living in this country. But the key point is that you have to stand up. Not some shadow-puppet anonymous identity, dripping hate from the safety of a basement keyboard. As far as that argument goes, shadow-puppets don’t actually have rights.

Oh, others — often anonymous — will cry: “we have to be able to speak anonymously because if we don’t, the government/big business/my mom might unjustly punish us.”

Please.

That might occasionally be true, especially in these dark times where there are clear examples of individuals, even in our province, who have been punished or singled out for speaking their minds.

But it’s a pretty long stretch to compare yourself to someone who has undergone a kind of public martyrdom for speaking truth to power, when what you want to post is a comment ridiculing a public figure’s weight, facial features or sexuality.

The simple fact is that people want the ability to spill bile without ever having to bear the responsibility for what they say. And while it may sound trite to say so, with rights, come responsibilities.

One of the saddest things you can see on media comment boards is when someone new posts a carefully thought-out argument on an issue raised by a story or editorial, and is then systematically shouted down by a group of bullies who can come up with nothing better than to make fun of the original poster’s name. The new poster vanishes, and any future insight from them vanishes too.

And don’t tell me that the Internet is a different kind of forum and that this isn’t really bullying: I’ve written before about bullying in the House of Assembly, and have had some suggest that the House is a particular kind of atmosphere where the give-and-take of heckling is both traditional and to be lauded.

There’s nothing wrong with heckling, just like there’s nothing wrong with responding to a comment — but just shouting “you’re stupid” over and over again is not heckling. It doesn’t even come close.

It is bullying, and trying to defend it should be a losing battle.

Why isn’t it? Maybe because there’s still a part of us that likes to watch bear-baiting. Maybe because there’s some sadistic pleasure in watching someone else be targeted. Once again — it’s all the trademarks of schoolyard bullying.

The traditional media’s travels into the Internet have been something of a learning curve. I’ve written about our obvious missteps in giving away news for free before, and I think it’s pretty clear from newspaper sites across this country that we’ve misstepped in choosing increased web traffic over common decency in comments sections.

Hopefully, either we’ll learn or unrestrained comments will naturally lose their audience. Not everyone wants to keep watching the wild dogs of comments use their teeth to pull apart the latest bear. It’s predictable, and it makes us smaller, whether we want to admit it or not. Eventually, everyone gets tired of hate, unless they are small-minded and bitter enough that their personal engine runs on it.

Some might suggest that, having unwittingly pulled the cork, we can’t put the genie back into the bottle. That may be; truly, the only option might be to throw the whole bottle away.

We need informed debate. We don’t need Internet bullying either on social media or media websites.

This is my column.

This is my name on it.

This is an example of freedom of speech.

I welcome opposing views from any real live people interested in exercising their similar rights. All gratuitous anonymous responses will be given the attention they deserve — and perhaps, as hard as it is to actually do, we should all take that approach.

 

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    March 18, 2013 - 12:08

    Mr. Wangersky. A well-deserved pat on the back for this effectively written column.

  • Stephen D Redgrave
    March 18, 2013 - 11:31

    Very cool article Russell: Can't say I disagree with any of it. We are a community and community members don't hide who we are, or what we stand for. This is what makes our country (CANADA) such a great place.

  • grisha
    March 18, 2013 - 11:14

    A right is not a right unless the holder has the discretion of exercising it in person or anonomysly. You are equating bad taste and bad manners as the same as extreme disagreement. You have elevated your own method as the only proper way to exercise a right. Unions want votes to be open and known, I would guess, so that some may intimidate voters that disagree with union orthodoxy. Why not have enforced, open balloting in all elections? There are plenty of good reasons. I believe that a person may exercise his right to his opinion any way he wants or it is not his. Same applies whether or not I agree with it. Just stay away from fraud, defamation and encouraging physical harm to person or property.

  • W McLean
    March 16, 2013 - 15:41

    A registration process would work wonders.

  • david
    March 16, 2013 - 14:06

    The reason for not identifying oneself as the author of something is simply to avoid consequences. IMPORTANT NOTE: Consequences can be deserved or undeserved. Regrading the latter, undeserved consequences are legion on this very messageboard. Anyone with an opinion on an issue, or a political party, or a politican, can count on being attacked and demeaned on this messageboard. So save the broad-brushed, sanctimonious thoughts on the "cowardice" of anonymity. In today's Newfoundland, you either opine anonymously, or you toe the line with the herd....well, unless like Mr. Wangersky you at least get paid for taking the slings and arrows. You'd be a fool do do otherwise.

    • Davids Conscience
      March 17, 2013 - 15:14

      Who are you to complain about others who attack and demean people on any these boards? You speak of youself. No one has ever posted as often as you comments that attack and demean others. In fact, that's all you ever do. We knew you were a coward but now we also know you're a hypocrite.

    • Happily Retired
      March 17, 2013 - 17:14

      David, Well said. Anybody who sets up the kind of forum that Russell finds so distasteful, but obviously supports, cannot possibly be surprised at what goes on it.

    • david
      March 18, 2013 - 11:52

      Hey, Conscience: Your post serves as a perfect example of bullying, so in this unique case, it is "on topic". But other than that, it is simply a priceless sample of the incredibly infantile level of typical debate and discourse of which I wrote. I was expecting such.....but you never know. BTW, even in anonymity, some bullies want to project theior "fake" ID even further onto their target....this is why our bullying is "world class", as we so now enjoy saying.

    • S Redgrave
      March 18, 2013 - 15:51

      David, you've dishonoured your name: I would rather be a "fool" as you put it, rather than be a part of your ridiculous herd. A real man or woman stands up for what they believe in and puts their name proudly in print. Real men don't throw stones

    • Davids Conscience
      March 18, 2013 - 20:22

      It's your conscience again. Your attempt at playing the victim is disingenuous at best. You think your conscience was bullying you when in fact it was karma. When you sling crap at others don't be surprised when some of it comes back to hit you. Interesting how you didn't deny anything your conscience said.

    • david
      March 19, 2013 - 13:01

      Et voila. (BTW, for those among you with mindpower to surmise that I wrote such laughably supportive "testimonials" myself : nope.)

  • crista
    March 16, 2013 - 12:46

    Russell you know who we are and we put comments that are the truths and have to pay money to use this service and that is to inform serious people of there daily life and try to get the truths to the ones that need help for what you called FREEDOM OF SPEECH, and we are at this for many years now as you would know and you know WE HAVE THE PROOF. THAT THE GOVERNMENT AND NOT ONLY THE GOVERNMENT CALL DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY???? and you know we are limited to what we can say when reading your articles.We are not the ones that hide and pretend the problem is getting some one that gets paid by society to be responsiable and stop insulting our intelligence.and reaping the system and put HUMAN RIGHTS back in the world.INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY and to have legal rights AND NOT GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT????

    • Steve Redgrave
      March 18, 2013 - 16:19

      Crista: I love the cut of your jib. A great read, ripped with honesty.

  • Danny
    March 16, 2013 - 10:41

    The bottom line is FB & other social media must be viewed as gossip & anyone who gets into the drama of such foolishness is asking to to part of the online garbage.People who want to remain private refrain from posting pics and tweeting or FB.I have a personal friend who says she has over 10000 FB friends.One evening I asked her if she knew several ppl,each person her response "never heard of them".I then showed each of them to her...they were her FB friends.Your real friends visit you and you them.You interact and play sports & go to various functions.Some you work with.Staying clear of online fanthom friends that follow you and your life or you them is creepy.

  • Cyril Rogers
    March 16, 2013 - 09:44

    Mr. Wangersky, I would go so far as to say that all comments in this media ought to carry the person's name and true identity. Anyone can bravely malign and insult someone else under the guise of anonymity and there are times when I wish I could conveniently hide behind some cover while voicing unpopular opinions. I respect any person's opinion but reserve the right to offer my own and to criticize others writings. I don't purport to be right but I have a right to my opinion....as long as I remember that is is just that.....my opinion. If I present what I perceive to be facts, I don't mind being corrected by factual information. Again, reasonable people can agree to disagree. From my perspective, The Telegram should henceforth stop publishing any comments not revealing the writer's true identity.

  • saelcove
    March 16, 2013 - 09:17

    Whoopie

  • Petertwo
    March 16, 2013 - 08:49

    Perhaps if newspapers, and others, stopped publishing those silly, pathetic, irrevelant,comments, there would be less and less of them? Freedom of speech is all very well up to a point, but there is also freedom from speech as well. I do not put any credence to any of them, particularly as most are often just shoddy politics. Maybe you need a new broom and start where it starts? You state that you will remove those comments, but you never do>

  • Rob Thomas
    March 16, 2013 - 07:20

    The only useful thing of anonymous posting is that it reveals the true character of the poster. It would be nice if readers had the option to click a button on this website that hid anonymous posting. Or, if the Telegram wants to earn revenues then let posting be a benefit of paying a subscription fee. Perhaps the best thing to do is to just remove the ability to post comments. Personally, other than a rant I doubt the Telegram will do anything to risk the number of visitors to it's website. You gave the children a toy and just telling them to "play nice" isn't going to cut it.