The lethal truth of on­line abuse

Dis­agree by all means, but nasty per­sonal at­tacks are out of line

Weekend Herald - - LIZZIE MARVELLY -

hen was the last time that you dis­agreed with some­one and told them that they should go and kill them­selves? When did you last have a dis­cus­sion about an is­sue in which you told some­one who op­posed your opin­ion that they de­served to be phys­i­cally harmed in some way?

For some so­cial me­dia users, the an­swer is prob­a­bly “yes­ter­day”, or “this morn­ing”.

This week, so­cial me­dia ended up in the news again, when Dun­can Garner de­cided to leave Twit­ter, call­ing the so­cial net­work “foul and pu­trid”. Garner wrote a col­umn about im­mi­gra­tion in which he de­scribed a trip to Kmart where he saw a queue of “In­di­ans, Pak­ista­nis, Sri Lankans, Syr­i­ans, and many oth­ers,” as a “night­mar­ish glimpse into our fu­ture if we stuff it up”. As it turned out, a num­ber of Twit­ter users didn’t much like Garner’s col­umn — nei­ther did the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion — and he spent last Satur­day de­fend­ing him­self.

I had some se­ri­ous reser­va­tions about Garner’s col­umn too, although I didn’t en­gage with him on Twit­ter. In­deed, any­one who dis­agreed with Garner was well within their rights to voice their opin­ion. There is a dif­fer­ence, how­ever, be­tween voic­ing an opin­ion and be­ing abu­sive.

From what I saw on Twit­ter, Garner re­ceived a large num­ber of thought­ful com­ments that dis­agreed with him in a civil, yet pas­sion­ate way. He main­tains that he also had a num­ber of abu­sive com­ments thrown at him. It’s im­por­tant not to con­fuse the two. Dis­agree­ment in and of it­self is not abuse, but if my ex­pe­ri­ences are any­thing to go by, I can be­lieve that he re­ceived a few vile com­ments.

Two weeks ago I re­ceived some ad­vice sug­gest­ing that I should kill my­self. A Face­book user took um­brage with my col­umn about Fon­terra CEO Theo Spier­ings’ salary and de­cided to of­fer me some of his pro­found wis­dom in re­sponse. “Seems like you have a tallpop­pyi­tis af­flic­tion,” Lawrence Prasad wrote. “Bungy jump­ing with­out the cord is known to help.”

Net­safe — the agency tasked by the Gov­ern­ment with han­dling on­line abuse — said the com­ment could rep­re­sent a “pos­si­ble breach of Prin­ci­ple 9 of the Harm­ful Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act: a dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion should not in­cite or en­cour­age an in­di­vid­ual to com­mit sui­cide.” Upon fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion, how­ever, Net­safe wrote back to tell me that “the first re­quire­ment of the HDCA has not been met, ( 1. There has been a threat­ened se­ri­ous breach, a se­ri­ous breach or a re­peated breach of one or more of the 10 com­mu­ni­ca­tions prin­ci­ples).”

No fur­ther ac­tion would be taken un­less I took the case to court.

To be fair and trans­par­ent, Mr Prasad did apol­o­gise — af­ter prompt­ing. He made sure to tell me (“please note”) that his com­ment was meant in jest. I’m not sure what this says about my sense of hu­mour, but I don’t re­ally find sui­cide all that funny.

Per­haps that’s the prob­lem. Maybe I just have a warped sense of hu­mour. I didn’t find these com­ments funny ei­ther:

“. . . She de­serves to be hunted like a dog . . . ” — a Face­book user go­ing by the name Rex An­der­son.

“You’re the rea­son why I hit women . . . ” — An In­sta­gram user go­ing by the name Prem­so­cial.

“I’d go if she was swing­ing ( from a rope) lol . . . ” — A Face­book user go­ing by the name Peter Large.

I did, how­ever, find this one quite amus­ing:

“Lizzie’s a pre­cious snowflake in touch with aliens.” — A Face­book user go­ing by the name Pe­tra Som­mers.

You’ve got me, Pe­tra. I’d bet­ter phone home to check whether my alien over­lords feel I’ve been com­pro­mised.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about on­line abuse. I’ve re­sisted it, be­cause the sad re­al­ity is that to speak of it is to in­vite more of it, and in­deed, I’m quite sure that there will be a num­ber of peo­ple queu­ing up to call me a “pre­cious pe­tal” who “can’t stand the heat” when this col­umn is pub­lished. The irony is that if any of them had to deal with the sheer vol­ume and fre­quency of abuse that I do, I doubt they’d last a week.

Which is not some kind of boast­ful badge of hon­our. It’s the lethal truth of on­line abuse. It harms and it kills. And re­gard­less of whether the tar­gets are pub­lic fig­ures, their cho­sen pro­fes­sion doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally give them su­per­hu­man pow­ers to with­stand emo­tional dis­tress. They are hu­man be­ings too.

This mod­ern ob­ses­sion with be­ing as nasty as pos­si­ble to one an­other on­line has to stop. I’m not say­ing that we should shut down de­bate and dis­cus­sion, but we need to re­mem­ber that it is pos­si­ble to agree to dis­agree and to do so civilly.

The first rule of de­bat­ing is to “play the ball, not the man” ( or woman). It’s a phrase that serves as a help­ful re­minder to young de­baters that to at­tack a mem­ber of the op­po­site team per­son­ally, rather than to fo­cus on ra­tio­nally dis­man­tling their ar­gu­ment, is to hand vic­tory to your op­po­nents. Ad hominem at­tacks lose de­bates.

In the real world, ad hominem at­tacks can re­sult in lost lives. Char­lotte Dawson’s be­ing one.

They should in­stead re­sult in con­se­quences for those who make them.

The­o­ret­i­cally we have leg­is­la­tion and an agency in this coun­try that act as a de­ter­rent. That’s cer­tainly not my ex­pe­ri­ence. Net­safe “aims to lessen the harm caused to peo­ple tar­geted on­line by us­ing per­sua­sion, me­di­a­tion and ne­go­ti­a­tion”.

The agency “can­not pun­ish peo­ple for their ac­tions on­line, or force them to take ac­tion such as re­mov­ing con­tent”.

It also does not have in­ves­tiga­tive pow­ers, and told me that in or­der to me­di­ate and ne­go­ti­ate with some­one who has been abu­sive, it must be pro­vided with an email ad­dress or phone num­ber. Hang on a minute — I’ll just ask my abusers for their con­tact de­tails, shall I?

It’s lu­di­crous. The sys­tem is fail­ing. In my opin­ion, the Harm­ful Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act is a joke.

Only, it’s about as funny as a joke about sui­cide.

Are you laugh­ing yet?

This mod­ern ob­ses­sion with be­ing as nasty as pos­si­ble to one an­other on­line has to stop . . . we need to re­mem­ber that it is pos­si­ble to agree to dis­agree and to do so civilly.

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