Cyberbullying on Twitter, Part One: The Anonymous Cowards

Posted in: Technology Law

Editor’s Note:  This is the first of a series of columns in which the author will address the subject of cyberbullying.

Recently, I have noticed that the number of bullies on Twitter is growing.  If you are unfamiliar with this popular online social networking and micro-blogging service, where users can send and read posted text of up to 140 characters, then read no further; this information is not for you.  But if you tweet, or follow others on Twitter, with a particular focus on issues relating to government and politics, this column may be of keen interest.

In this and subsequent columns, I plan to examine bullying among Twitter users who share this focus.  I will explore what can and cannot be done about these sorry—if not, in some cases, sick—people who like to make life miserable for others.  (Adults who take pleasure in trying to hurt others are unwell, from my point of view, anyway.)

While I claim no special expertise in dealing with bullying, I know a good bit about bullies, given my role in the high-stakes undertaking of removing a corrupt president of the United States from office.  (The President, as readers likely know, was Nixon and the corruption culminated in the scandal known as Watergate).  Bullies have long rallied to Nixon’s defense.  More recently, I have encountered the wrath of authoritarian conservative bullies, because of my political commentary about them and their spiteful politics.  In short, I have been dealing with the messed-up minds of bullies, and their warped and dysfunctional personalities, for about a half-century now.

For this reason, I have some thoughts about how to deal with bullies on Twitter, which I hope will prove useful to those who are confronted with this antisocial misbehavior.  Tolerating bullying is condoning it.  Bullying is inexcusable, and it is loathsome.  It is unnecessary, uncalled for and harmful.  It can be dealt with effectively, however.

To explain how requires more than a few 140-character tweets, for bullying has been the subject of much scholarly and professional study and reporting, and it raises complex legal issues, which I will try to make as simple and straightforward as possible.

The Nature of Bullying

Bullies deliberately seek, albeit with varying degrees of intensity, to intimidate, torment, terrorize, frighten, harass, trouble, oppress, and/or hurt their targeted victim (or victims).  If the bully’s incivility, and antisocial behavior, has any redeeming value whatsoever, in any setting, I have been unable to find it.

Social scientists catalogue bullying as a type of aggressive behavior.  It is broadly described (and I paraphrase) as a form of coercive interpersonal influence, involving efforts to deliberately inflict injury or discomfort on another person through repeated verbal abuse or other negative actions.  Typically, this behavior is protracted, although it may be periodic.

As with obscenity, most people know bullying when they see it, so I need not dwell on describing the name-calling; the vicious teasing; the spreading of gossip or rumors or outright falsehoods; the focusing of unwanted attention; and the revealing of private and personal information—that is, the many ways and means of bullying—for they are endless and easily recognized by the style and form of their delivery.

Bullying should, of course, be distinguished from criticism.  Bullying is aggressive, uncalled for, and repetitive behavior, which far exceeds censure, disagreement, or even condemnation.  The bully calls attention to others in order to humiliate and belittle and bother them.  If you differ with another, you always have the right to criticize.  But you have no right to bully.  The distinguishing factors are the aggressiveness of the bully, the nature of the content, and the purpose of the criticism.  The same is true with teasing, which can eventually become taunting and bullying.

Usually, bullies test their targets, looking for responses that show the bully that he or she is getting to the victim.  What may not be bullying conduct for one person will be for another, and the bully is good at recognizing how aggressive he or she must be to effectively harass a target.  Some bullies, however, are merely gratuitously nasty to others with whom they are not comfortable or with whom they disagree, and they simply pour out endless abuses, hoping that the target learns of their activity.

While the conduct of the bully falls into endless permutations and combinations, and although bullies are few, rather than many, compared to reasonable people, bullies are well understood, and not difficult to identify.

The Making of a Bully: In a Nutshell

Most bullies I have known are troubled personalities.  Typically, they are manipulative, deceptive, insecure, socially awkward, and secretly frightened, although generally also intelligent, and often quite clever.

At the risk of distorting the findings of the extensive studies of bullies, I have packed into a nutshell what I believe science tells us about bullies’ essence.  (And I note at the outset that nowhere did I find any study that found this behavior acceptable, or untreatable for those who are biologically pre-disposed toward such behavior.)

Like most all our traits and proclivities, bullies are a product of both nature and nurture.  Bullies are predominately males, and many perceive themselves to be socially, intellectually, or politically superior to their target(s)—when, in fact, the opposite is the case.  They often see themselves as rivals of those whom they target as their victims.

Bullies usually have high-self esteem, which can too easily result in unstable self-evaluation.  People with unstable high self-esteem can become aggressive in response to even seemingly minor or trivial threats to self-esteem, researchers note, thus resulting in bullying.  The bully is often a socially ineffectual person, lacking the emotional competence needed to detect, understand, and respond to the feelings of others.  The bully has no empathy and could care less about his or her lack of it, for he or she lacks the ability for self-reflection and the skill to appreciate another’s perspective.

Studies reveal three leading biological causes underlying the behavior that produces a bully.  I will paraphrase them:

(1) Researchers have found brain malfunction related to the frontal lobes, which are thought to influence self-control, maturity, judgment, tactfulness, reasoning, and aggression. In anti-social, aggressive individuals, the prefrontal cortex’s uptake of glucose (i.e., fuel for the brain) has been found to be significantly lower than that in others.

(2) Researchers report genetic mutations in aggressive males resulting in malfunctions in the process of metabolizing key behavior chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which results in high levels of aggression and antisocial behavior.

(3) Researchers report that aggressive behavior can be associated with a strong immune system, which appears to produce other chemical results.

A medical doctor told me that all these conditions, if diagnosed, are easily treatable.

Finally, on the nurture side, studies show that many adult bullies may themselves have been bullied as children (at home or at school), so that, for them, bullying may be acquired behavior.  In fact, the behavior may be a form of revenge.

Bullies are often sociopathic, but rarely psychopathic, or as one researcher noted, there are not many Charlie Mansons among bullies’ ranks.  Studies describe bullies as opportunistic: skilled at reading situational cues, which they then act upon.  While bullies typically lack essential social skills, many have well-developed analytical skills, which enable them to engage in bullying activities while avoiding sanctions and negative reactions from others.

Lastly, as one study points out, research on traditional bullies shows that they are often highly narcissistic personalities.  It is believed that all these factors describe cyberbullies as well.  But research on traditional bullies has only recently begun to be examined and extrapolated to the world of the cyberbully, where there are differences.

In fact, there is one true distinguishing feature of the cyberbully:  Virtually all of them act either anonymously or pseudonymously.

The Cyberbully: Dealing With the New Breed of Uber Cowards

Studies are still mixed and unclear as to whether anonymity or pseudonymity—which allows a person to hide behind several identities (if they wish) via usernames—on the Internet has increased bullying.  There is no question, however, that bullies online seldom, if ever, use their true identities.

The anonymous cyberbully has the distinction of being the most despicable of all bullies, because of his or her anonymity (or pseudonymity), which marks the bully as particularly craven and spineless in the refusal to take any responsibility for his or her behavior.  Everyone knows who the playground or boardroom bully is.  But the cyberbully’s identity is known only on rare occasions, and often only to confederates in his or her bullying.

Anonymity makes the cyberbully a new breed of uber coward, a bully who may feel empowered because he or she sees himself or herself (incorrectly) as unencumbered by personal responsibility or accountability for his or her actions.  The cyberbully believes he or she can wreak havoc and inflict pain on others invisibly, and without personal consequences.

Unlike the schoolyard bully or the workplace bully, who has limited access to a target, technology enables the cyberbully to go after his or her online target(s) 24/7, and to play to a larger audience when spreading cruel rumors, lies, or false information; or, on occasion, releasing personal and private information—all typical cyberbully tactics.  In short, the cyberbully can do far more harm, with less effort, and all with little personal exposure, than the real-world bully (at least, one who does not resort to violence) can.  On many occasions, the victim of the cyberbully will not even know who is attacking them, or why they are being attacked, and the victim almost never knows the true evil behind the undertaking.

In short, the cyberbully, like those found tweeting pseudonymously on Twitter, are uniquely disquieting, and deserving of more than a special loathing.  We need a solid set of techniques for dealing with their offensive and obnoxious behavior.  Fortunately, there are a number of excellent remedies available to deal with cyberbullies, which I will explain in subsequent columns.  Because of the cyberbully’s hidden identity, he or she—when hell-bent on attacking and hurting others—should be dealt with quickly and forcefully.  The law offers a number of potential remedies.  And fortunately, cyberspace provides only a limited shield for these miscreants.

While I have focused this bullying column—and will focus the other columns to come—on Twitter, I would be interested in any and all techniques developed by attorneys who have dealing with cyberbullying.  This field is evolving quickly, not just in America, but also throughout the world.  Moreover, it has become a problem that is increasingly finding its way to the desk of attorneys.  I would like to hear from any American attorney with knowledge and experience on this subject, who would be willing to share information about, and techniques for combating cyberbullying—either on or off-the-record—so I can share such techniques, as appropriate, with everyone.  My contact address for this purpose is:

Posted in: Technology Law

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  • JRose

    Was Mark Felt as Deep Throat a type of anonymous social-media bully? Not a cyber-bully persay, but a bully that posted things in the social media of the day — newspapers.

  • Anonymous

    Our forefathers would roll over in their graves if they knew what a country of cowards we have become. If you don’t have the guts to say it to someone’s face, it shouldn’t be said and we have totally lost grip with reality when it comes to the first amendment. Libeling someone is not free speech. Twitter is getting worse, I agree with that and part of that is because more and more people are starting to use Twitter. I remember when it came out, I couldn’t believe that anyone would ever use something that only allowed 140 characters. However, as bad as Twitter can be at least they require users to have an account and have admitted cyberbullying is a problem. Topix is the one we really should be concerned about, that site is as evil as it gets.

  • JR

    There is a lawsuit in the 9th Circuit that may have a significant impact on cyber-bullying if the panel of judges decides to rehear the negligence claims.  It is the first case of its kind that may hold the website responsible for not doing enough to prevent a cyber-bully from harming the victim.  The case is Riggs v. MySpace.

  • Tom Jacobs

    Since bullying in all its shapes & formats is a cultural phenomenon, we have to address social behavior from the earliest point in a child’s life. Lessons from parents about appropriate communication and netiquette are vital. Once children, tweens and teens understand the concept of consequences, they will begin to think before hitting the Send button. This goes beyond punishment at home to an understanding of consequences to others from mean-spirited and cruel posts: to the victim, the victim’s family and the bully’s family. Take a look at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” for real cases of kids in trouble over their cellphone and online comments. Every teen interviewed reported that had they known what would happen after posting their comment, they wouldn’t have done it. The message to “Think B4 U Send” can’t be stressed enough.   -Judge Tom

  • Having been cyberbullied myself, I have an understanding of the effect it can have on a person. Despite the fact that I knew the claims against me were lies, it still created anxiety. It’s odd, but exactly the same claims against me & those who tried to defend me have been leveled against a Twitter user I follow. My situation didn’t happen in Twitter, but how I conduct myself when there has a great deal to do with what I know from personal experience and what I am seeing happen to someone. There is no greater teacher than experience. 

  • For heaven’s sake, I stayed with you to the fifth pragraph or so, where you STILL explained what bullying is. WHERE’S THE BEEF? Who the hell do you think your readers are? Folks who lived on the dark side of the moon and don’t know about bullies and/or Twitter? FAILURE! I still don’t know what your real point was, but I don’t care anymore. Bye.

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  • Isispalomares

    I think finnally someone paid attention…there are some people who take your nick, and try to passed as other people, just to end up bullying you in an emotional, way pretending and promissing actions that cannot be delivered.. it´s good to bring this issue to everyone´s attention, to me comes down to the loose of respect, respect for others, respect for one self.

  • Randall R. Kniess

    Once a coward Mr. Dean, always a coward. And you sir were a crying coward in 1973, and you are still a crybaby today. I find it amazing that being a loyal friend is not part of your lifestyle. You looked weak back then and you still are the biggest milk toast from the Nixon Administration there ever was. This is not bullying as you perceive, but the truth and that is what bothers you. It is you who need mental care for your paranoia.

    • Tell it like it is

      ^^^ Troll.

  • Bobfr

    Appreciate your efforts on this topic. Thank you.

    #YesWeCanDOMoreTogether – We Must!

  • JRose

    Wasn’t Mark Felt as Deep Throat an anonymous coward/bully?

  • Webeditor

    One cannot often be bullied without there permission.

  • Streve Weinrich

    My business has been the subject of cyberbullying on Craig’s List.  I have heard from other sources that this is a common practice on Craig’s List and that there is a possiblity that there are folk who are doing so for profit.

  • Renata Rowe

    It is interesting that you say that virtually all cyber bullies act anonymously – perhaps in the adult world.  In the teen world I have seen much cyberbullying committed in the name of the perpetrator; often through their own Facebook page, MSN, FormSpring, even Skype.  Twitter doesn’t seem to be their thing. Teens forget I think that they are traceable, and identifiable when they get into cyber space. 

    Occasionally teens set up what they think is an anonymous Facebook Page (all pages need an email address to start with and IP addresses can be traced to households or computers if need be) but if you report such a page to Facebook they will take it down.  I have reported an Anonymous page and it has worked, Facebook removed the page.  The law is lagging, as it often is, behind this subject.  Police seem lost as to how to manage it.   Parents and teachers are left to find ways of dealing with it. And we don’t do too badly I think!

    We, as educators and parents must teach teens, two things, that they have a digital responsibility to be good digital citizen and that their digital footprint is always traceable.   To this end we have created a website to teach our parents about cybersafety and cyber threats to their teens as parents like the law are sometimes behind in the fast growing nature of this area.

  • I suspect some cyberbullies are in fact paid political operatives who insinuate, muddy, obfuscate themselves into a Twitter group and sociopathically attacks people’s reputations and fan flamewars between rivals.  Some cyberbullies are not sociopaths but are in fact psychopaths who chooses people at random as targets, often because of some self-incensed slight.

  • I also find it best to just never answer cyberbullies who after all crave a response.  Or just say “Whatever you’re doing I will not comply”.  Show no fear, and keep your responses in the first tense.  It short-circuits them.

  • Rebecca York

    Very interesting. Thanks so much for covering this…it IS so important and needs to stop. 

  • Anonymous

    As a veteran of the flame wars, I almost feel I have to disqualify myself on this toic as having too thick a skin… However, I do have a comment on the subtopic of anonymity.

    The more I think about it, the less I believe anonymity can be justified, and especially not as a default case. In every case I have been able to imagine (and I usually think my imagination is overactive), secrecy can only be justified based on prior secrecy–and there isn’t even a basis for that pretense in the case of bullies, cyber or otherwise.

    The classic examples of justified anonymity is for the protection of witnesses or whistle-blowers, but that relies on the prior secrecy of the crimes they are revealing. Having said that, I concede that there does need to be be some provision for anonymity because some people are going to commit secret crimes and some of those people will seek revenge when they are exposed–but I still think anonymity should be quite exceptional, and not a convenient default case that is almost begging for abuse.

    The protection of anonymous sources by journalists is an example of a working system that allows for anonymity with validity and protection against the worst abuses.

  • CJ

    By far the most deranged and relentless bullies are posting on, which allows people to post and create topics anonymously.  It is basically a free for all.

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  • On point article and thank you.  On twitter, even if you are not following the bully, their remarks can appear in your stream and become disruptive in adult conversations. Others feeling protective or entitled join in and the feeding begins. 

  • Dee

    Great article…a sensitive subject that needs alot more attention. Although it seems a hard problem to overcome with all the added social media posibilities today, I beleive the more possibilities it leaves to expose this type of activity and to STOP it. I work with a company that provides a social media protection service. Many people are afraid to admit to being a victim of bullying so keep it to themselves or may not want anyone to know that they need help. SocialShield is a wonderful service that can be applied to an account without anyone else being aware of it’s use.This gives the account user ( or users Parents ) the peace of mind needed when using social media. Any type of social bullying on the account will be alerted to but will not be shown to social peers. I recommend this service to anyone that wants to protect their children from being bullied but does not have time to constantly watch or go over what may be occuring on social media sites their children are using…for anyone interested, you may view this service at…

  • Pete Austin

    You say, “Everyone knows who the playground or boardroom bully is.  But the
    cyberbully’s identity is known only on rare occasions, and often only to
    confederates in his or her bullying.”

    On Twitter, you see the tweets of people who you voluntarily follow. I have never followed anyone whose identity I don’t know, at least in part. Are you suggesting that bullying victims seek out and follow totally anonymous bullies, because that seems absurd?

  • Tell it like it is

    I agree that cyber-bullying is a huge problem, the scope of which people are not understanding. When the full story comes out one day, and lets hope that day is soon, people are going to be horrified. This is no small problem. Its huge.

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  • wolf

    I read this post and it willing good all the info. But I was cyberbull to make things willing wired the person use skype to call my cell number and pick on me then post the call on youtube then he started to hack my facebook and made it look like I’m a ass but I shut down my facebook and other site I was a part of

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