Bullying, Social Media, and Revenge


I read a very thought provoking article in Wired recently. The author uses two stories to make several points. The first story revolves around a woman at a tech conference who overheard two men at a table next to her making sexual remarks under the not-so-subtle guise of tech terminology. She snapped a picture of them and published it via Twitter with some sample quotes. The men were recognized and lost their jobs. She also was fired. The second story revolves around several teenagers that made racists comments on social media about Obama. The teens became the target of a shaming campaign, their principal was notified, etc. There was significant discussion about the impact their postings would have on the them for the rest of their lives.

Points: (1) The power of social media to magnify an individual’s message, (2) Once you publish something, you lose control, (3) Victims become bullies when their posts result in the bullying/shamming of the original perpetrators, and (4) The internet never forgets.

I struggled to be sympathetic to the two men that were fired despite the author’s attempt to argue the men went from bullies to being bullied. I have close female colleagues who work and have worked in large law firms. The incredibly inappropriate behavior by many of their male colleagues, including sexist comments, takes a very serious toll, never mind exposing the organization to liability and the loss of revenue. I watch how these repeated comments demoralize women and create a crappy work environment. (I am discussing sexism and sexual discrimination because that is in part what the article is about, but you can insert any type of bullying.) I get angry when my wife has to deal with it and I am going to get really angry when my daughter begins to deal with it.

Sorry guys. You made inappropriate comments in a public forum. You were flamed by a lot of people that thought your behavior was boorish and you lost your jobs. Your privacy was violated? Hah. I have news for you. Every one of your friends and colleagues already knew about your behavior. They weren’t surprised. I can only hope it sent a message to everyone else. You are adults and you made a bad decision. Is this going to follow you around? Probably. I recommend you change your behavior and come up with a really good mea culpa for your future job interviews.

Regarding the teens, I am sympathetic. Many societies, and western culture in general, have made a decision to treat children differently. They are more easily susceptible to influence (e.g., parents, pert, etc.) and they are often not capable of fully understanding the ramifications of their actions. Research shows that the frontal lobe of the brain, where decision making and risk weighing occur, is not fully formed until the early 20’s. Thus, I don’t think those tweets should follow them around for the rest of their lives.

But the internet has a long memory and we don’t have a right-to-forget for teens or a consent requirement for processing the personal information for teens (I’m going to skip the argument about whether they consented when they posted or if they have the capacity to consent).

Extremes aside, I don’t agree with the author’s assertion that the above incidents were examples of perpetrators being bullied. I suppose one person’s just desserts could be another person’s bullying, but I don’t think the above are examples. The general definition of a bully is one who uses strength to harm or intimidate a weaker person. The author applies this definition equally amongst the perpetrators and original victims. But no one thought we were bullying Hitler in 1945. Okay, it’s an extreme example, but my point is that a bully that receives his or her just desserts doesn’t qualify as a victim, at least not automatically.

The author should have taken another tack: Does public shaming result in behavioral change? I suspect beating up a bully doesn’t result in much behavioral change (it’s likely to make him or her more insecure and increase the likelihood of lashing out against weaker persons so the bully can again feel in control and powerful). At the same time, I suspect these guys are no longer referring to the size of their dongles in public places. Behavioral change is complicated.

When email first arrived, people did a lot of stupid things. They still do, but I think the rate of dumb things is less. An etiquette has formed around the drafting and sending of email. A lot has been written about email etiquette. Companies have policies and educate their workforces. I think the same will happen with social media as well.

Until then, remember- your social media posts may be more powerful than you realize, think twice before shaming anyone, and the Internet has a very long memory. 

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