How can cyber harassment in social media be stopped?
By Dr Tom van Laer
In the past ten years, social media have revolutionized the way people communicate. Each day, 483 million users log on to Facebook. Each minute, 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. Each second, 4050 tweets are “tweeted” out onto the Web, to a worldwide community. These numbers have been growing exponentially. Many businesses are now providing services in these and other social network sites.
Harassment has always been part of human communication; social media too are rife with references to such hostility. Cyber harassment is not about benign teasing, nor is the harasser a child whose activities remind us of the schoolyard bully. Cyber harassment involves a course of action in which an adult individual or group of individuals uses information and communication technology (ICT) to cause another individual to suffer emotional distress. When the behaviour is repeated over a period of time, one speaks of cyber stalking. In the United States alone, more than half a million people age 18 or older have been estimated to be victims of cyber harassment. Cyber harassment, which social media providers sometimes tacitly accept, can have harmful effects, ranging from victims’ inhibition to participate in the online community to their suicide due to the emotional distress brought on by the online aggression. An example of the latter would include the suicide on 22 September 2010 of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University student, whose roommate electronically spied on him and gossiped about him on Twitter.
Even if the social network site moderators are not aware of any cyber harassment, it may be argued that they should be. By virtue of their centrality in the community and their role as service provider, social media providers hold considerable responsibility for any harm that results from activities in the community. This may be the case even when users transmit information directly to each other. For example, legal defences of having no knowledge of harmful behaviour were dismissed in the case of peer-to-peer site Napster, which was forced to shut down in July 2001. The same argument can be applied to social media providers that link individuals who otherwise are unconnected to each other. It can be argued that as a result of knowledge that these businesses would have gained from users, they risk being guilty of complicity in the cyber harassment that users undertake. A major question that has not been answered is whether service providers can creatively minimize this risk. My current research goes into this direction. Stay tuned.