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