by Anne R. Allen
Lots has been written about the pain caused by online bullying of children and teens—and that stuff is horrific—but we don’t hear as much about the cyberbullying that goes on in the adult world.
But cyberbullying can have disastrous consequences, no matter what the victim’s age or social status. In fact, some people think it’s having a devastating impact on our whole culture.
Welsh journalist Jon Ronson tells us cyberbullying and public shaming in social media are “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”
He fears we’re heading for a dumbed-down world controlled by Internet trolls and cyberbully gangs.
Unfortunately, the Internet is still the “wild west,” and tech companies and individual governments don’t yet have the laws in place to combat this behavior.
We need to learn how to keep ourselves safe, avoid being swept up in mob behavior, and report abuse when we see it.
Reporting is the only way to get the necessary laws and rules put in place, even if it seems our individual complaints aren’t addressed.
Unfortunately, as I was writing this piece, I heard the news that Reddit has fired Victoria Taylor, its strongest anti-abuse advocate. Reddit has harbored sadistic bullies, pedophiles, and hate groups in the past, and apparently it plans to return to its old ways. I strongly recommend avoiding Reddit unless it does something to address criminal behavior on the site.
Social Media and Public Shaming
Jon Ronson laments “toxic Reddit threads” as well as psychopathic behavior on Twitter in his hair-raising (and funny) book about online bullying and character assassination called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It was Amazon’s “Best Book” of April 2015.
Ronson is a successful, high profile author (his book The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a major film starring George Clooney).
But his reputation was nearly destroyed by bullies who hijacked his identity and posted bizarre things in his name on Twitter.
As a result, he wrote his now-bestselling book that has been called a “tour through a not-necessarily-brave new world where faceless commenters wield the power to destroy lives and careers, where the punishments often outweigh the crimes, and where there is no self-control and (ironically) no consequences.”
You can see an interview with Jon Ronson on the PBS Newshour here, and a review of his book at the New York Times here.
Anonymity, Speed of Communication, and the Power of the Hive Mind
The above blurb blames the anonymity of the Internet for much of the nastiness—and I agree that’s a big factor—but I think the most egregious abuses spring from something far more dangerous than the lone anonymous troll: “groupthink” aka the “hive mind.”
It is the speed of communication on the Internet—not just the anonymity—that makes it such a dangerous place. Rumors that would have taken weeks to reach the public consciousness in the pre-Internet age can rouse the Twitchfork-wielding rabble in an instant.
There’s a quote attributed to psychology pioneer William James that voices the principle at work here: “there’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”
That kind of mass-repetition can now happen on social media in a matter of minutes.I’ve observed that once people have repeated a lie—especially an outrageous one—they become invested in it. It becomes part of their identity. Members of a “hive” that has perpetrated a falsehood or misinterpretation of facts feel a narcissistic compulsion to keep repeating it—to “prove” their own righteousness.The same thing is true when someone commits an act of verbal cruelty, the way so many Twitterers did this week to a bestselling author. Once an individual joins in an attack on a designated victim, s/he becomes assimilated into the collective hive mind and seems to lose the ability to behave as an individual.
This means that trying to reason with an individual member of the hive is useless. Otherwise sane people will display a complete lack of empathy—behavior that’s usually seen only in a true sociopath.
It’s as if people are saying: “I’m not really a sociopath, but I play one on Twitter.”
Thing is, social media is real life. Your victims are real people. You are inflicting real pain.
People who say, “this isn’t bullying because the target is successful/ naïve, liberal/ conservative, religious/ atheist, feminist/ antifeminist, made a typo, got a fact wrong, used irony, wrote in a genre I disapprove of…and the old faithful, ‘Mo-o-o-m, he started it!'” need to grow up.
There is no excuse for doing evil stuff. Stop it.
Of course the hive mind does not always do evil. As Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
But it needs a corollary: “Never doubt that a small group of misguided citizens can devolve into a mindless, bloodthirsty mob.”
Angry Mobs are High on their Own Rage
When you become part of the hive mind, you become as unreasoning as a swarm of bees.
Angry people actually get high on their own rage. Anger management specialists tell us that self-righteous rage can trigger brain chemicals that mimic the high of cocaine. And it’s just as addictive.
A hive mind drunk on anger is unable to think or learn. It is intolerant of any divergence from the hive’s orthodoxy and outraged by humor, whimsy, irony, or fantasy.
All non-literal speech goes over its buzzy little head.
In fact, the hive mind often feels the need to thwart artistic expression of any kind, as we can see with the religious-fanatic hive destroying ancient art in the Middle East.
Scapegoating and Shaming have always been a Road to Power
The dangers of the hive mind are not unique to the Internet age, of course. Humans have been whipped into cruel frenzies by stupid ideas ever since Zog convinced the tribe that throwing Gog into the smoking volcano would keep it from erupting.
Euripides explored the phenomenon in 405 BC when he wrote the Bacchae —in which a band of women, under the spell of an angry Dionysis, rip their king to pieces with their bare hands, thinking he’s a wild beast.
Wily politicians have always known how to use mob behavior to their advantage. Designating a scapegoat/enemy and lying to the masses about the danger they pose is the power-play of choice for most tyrannical regimes.
When I was researching my new Camilla mystery, SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM, I did a lot of reading about Richard III, (who appears as a ghost in the novel.) As you probably know, Richard III was portrayed by Shakespeare as a heinous tyrant who murdered his young nephews.
This is very likely a lie. But it has been repeated for 530 years, so has become accepted as fact—although Richard had little motive. More proof that the William James quote is correct.
The Tudor hive mind needed reassurance that Henry Tudor had a God-given right to the throne, so spreading lies about the godlessness of his dead predecessor was a no-brainer.
Public Shaming and Online Reviews
It’s a quirky coincidence that in my novel, a character named Ronson is publicly shamed and slandered on social media.
I hadn’t heard of Jon Ronson when I first created the character of Ronson V. Zolek, but Ronzo could easily have been a subject for Jon Ronson’s book. He’s a music review blogger who suffers public shaming at the hands of a band he gave a bad review. The stories they spread about him are so horrific, he may have committed suicide. (Sorry: no spoilers.)
At the same time, his girlfriend, etiquette expert and bookstore owner Camilla Randall, suffers swarms of obscene personal-attack “reviews” as well as doxxing, hacking, social media shaming—and eventually rape and death threats and real-life destruction of her business. All because she commits the cardinal sin of responding to a negative fake review on Amazon.
Although I exaggerate my characters’ troubles for comic effect, none of what goes on is terribly far-fetched.
It happened to me four years ago when I wrote a blogpost that displeased one of the Queen Bees of the review bully brigade, who Tweeted a call to cyber-jihad against me.
I’ve taken most of the threats and “reviews” Camilla receives word for word from my own and other real online threats.
Some come from last year’s #Gamergate mess—a toxic Twitter storm sparked by a woman’s negative review of a videogame. Hordes of male gamers got in touch with their inner cavepersons and screamed a blistering group-howl of misogyny on Twitter and Reddit.
Women responded with nasty behavior of their own.
The battle escalated to threats of rape, torture, and mass murder that were so vicious and terrifying that some reviewers and designers had to go into hiding. Colleges went into lockdown when Columbine-style shootings were threatened.
Unfortunately, the gaming world and the book world are closely related. The Amazon forums were originally started for discussions of videogames, and #Gamergate-style misogyny and brutality is rampant there. (Women can be as rabid in their misogyny as men. Most of the rape threats I’ve seen aimed at women come from women. Go figure.)
Even if you have the sense to stay away from the Amazon fora—which I strongly recommend—the bullying that started there has crept into much of online bookselling.
Reviewers and Authors are Equally Victimized
Unfortunately, online customer reviews have become the “third rail” of the new publishing paradigm. No author is supposed to touch the subject.
But—as I show in SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM—reviewers and authors are equally victims of bullying and we’d be better off banding together to fight it.
Unfortunately, the world of online reviews is mired in corruption. The Guardian reported in 2013 that at least 20% of online reviews are fake. These days I think it’s probably more like 30%-40%.
I wrote in May about how Amazon is cracking down on the paid review mills that have grown up around their review system (and all retail and service review sites). But they can’t get them all. In many third world countries, writing fake online reviews has become a growth industry.
There are also authors who use fake identities (“sock puppets”) to inflate their own review numbers and vote down their “rivals'” books.
And a number of nasty groups use Amazon and Goodreads reviews to carpet-bomb books they haven’t read with one-stars and personal attacks to further a political, religious, or social cause. They also do it to punish authors for imagined misdeeds or simply inflict sadistic pain on random strangers for fun.
I will no doubt get some one-star reviews as retaliation for this post. (There’s nothing a bully hates more than an appeal for reason and empathy.)
Amazon is making some changes to the review algorithms in order to make the reviews more fair, which I applaud. I’ve heard rumors that they’ve started mass-removal of reviews for inscrutable reasons, but the rumors are as yet substantiated, so I reserve judgement on that.
But I fear they still aren’t addressing the bully problem. Giving more weight to “verified” reviews doesn’t help much because sock puppets, vigilantes and trolls know how to buy an ebook and return it within minutes to get that “verified” stamp of approval.
I’d like to see Amazon limit the number of aliases a reviewer can use. I should think five would be a sufficient number for any legitimate Amazon customer. And it would do a whole lot to cut down on the sock-puppets and one-star public-shaming swarms.
Goodreads has improved their moderation and seem to be quicker to delete toxic threads than they used to be. They have also banished some of their most sadistic Mean Girls. But unfortunately plenty remain—and new ones spring up all the time.
How to Avoid Becoming a Target
I realize that some new authors appear to be “asking for it”. Especially if they’re naïve and don’t realize that getting bad reviews is part of the process of publishing. They can have very public temper tantrums when they get a one-star review, as happened on Goodreads last month.
An author who protests an unkind review (or responds to a negative review in any way) can be the target of toxic verbal abuse, swarms of one-stars, and the ever-popular rape and death threats.
Authors can be bullies too. The ones who feel entitled to all five-stars-all-the-time sometimes call out fans to bully reviewers who don’t give them the praise they think they deserve.
I think a lot of naïve newbie authors can be led astray by the over-zealous self- and vanity- publishing industries who tell them that if they pay enough for editing and good design, they won’t get one-star reviews.
They’ve been lied to. Every successful writer gets cruel reviews. Every. Single. One. Go check the Amazon reviews of any bestseller.
New authors need to understand that a few nasty reviews aren’t abuse.
However, attacks on the author’s character, false accusations of plagiarism or buying fake reviews, carpet-bombing with dozens of one-stars, stalking, hacking, doxxing (making public personal, work, and family contact information), and sending rape and death threats IS.
I’ve heard from veteran authors who have landed in the hospital with stress-related illnesses, panic attacks, and depression as a result of online persecution by the bullies on Amazon and Goodreads.
Reviewers get stalked, physically assaulted, and suffer public shaming, too. Not always at the hands of authors and their fans, but sometimes as a result of reviewer-on-reviewer bullying, which is a big problem in the Amazon fora—and also plays a part in my novel.
Never Participate in Public Shaming
Public shaming is like torture. If you do it, you’re opening the door to have it done to you.
You are also encouraging limits to free speech and artistic expression with what superstar author Anne Rice calls “censorship by troll.” This week she said on her Facebook page:
“I’m fed up with ‘Censorship by Troll.’ Aren’t you? Well, there is a way to stop it. Appeal to websites and internet venues to enforce their existing guidelines against obscenity, abuse, threats and out and out ‘hate’ attacks. Just about every internet business or venue has guidelines; and if they don’t, they can establish some. What is needed is moderation.”…superstar author Anne Rice
If you hear that an author or reviewer has been accused of piracy, plagiarism, political incorrectness, or other “bad behavior”, check the facts before joining the angry mob.
Even if the accusations are valid—does the punishment really suit the crime? Threatening to rape and mutilate a teenager who overreacts to a nasty review—or writes one—may seem justified to the hive mind, but does it make sense to your own personal brain? Would you be proud of contributing to a fellow human’s heart attack, depression or suicide ?The people who terrorized me with death threats probably thought they were doing good by ridding cyberspace of an uppity old lady. Or, more likely, they didn’t think at all.Next time, instead of grabbing your Twitchfork and joining a frenzied mob, why not take a breath and detach from the hive mind? Ask yourself if you would you like this stuff to happen to you or your child.
So What Can we do About Cyber-Gangs?
Nobody can eliminate Internet bullying entirely—and the tech giants won’t do much about it until abuse reports hit critical mass—but you can do your part by learning the rules, refusing to participate and reporting abuse when you see it.
I know the rules are sometimes hard to find, so a couple of years ago I compiled a list of some of the biggies: The Laws of the Amazon Jungle.
The Internet book community is ours to create. We can become a jungle of irrational, violent, anger-addicted brats, or we can behave like literate, civilized adults. If someone is misusing a forum, or you see criminal or bullying activity, leave the group temporarily and contact the appropriate authorities.
Not only do most sites have a “report abuse” button, but you can report false and misleading reviews to the government
If your life or safety are being threatened or you witness a case of cybercrime in the US, you can report to the FBI.
If you believe a review is false and misleading, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, or your local state attorney general’s office: (Google: Your state + Attorney General Consumer Affairs Division+ file complaint.)
I don’t know about reporting cybercrime outside the US, but maybe a reader can provide info in the comments. I know that in progressive countries like Australia, there are already laws in place against cyberbullying and trolling.
And remember that what happens online has real consequences. This is not a videogame.
Blogger Chuck Wendig said it very well this week (warning, Chuck uses colorful language):
“I question why we have to be mean for the sake of being mean….Ill-made snark and meanness dull the effectiveness of your criticism; they do not often sharpen it. Is it bullying? Maybe not taken individually, but when it becomes a crashing tide like that — I don’t care who you are, that’s not healthy for your mental well-being. Whatever the case, I think it does us well to remember: Online is IRL.” (IRL=In Real Life) ...Chuck Wendig
Jay Asher, author of the NYT bestselling anti-bullying YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why has been the victim of online bullying himself. This week he said on Facebook:“It shouldn’t matter how rich someone is, or whether we like their writing…to say a behavior toward that person is wrong…I see so many of my friends, and myself, get really hurt when people say horrible things online…We’re not supposed to defend ourselves. We’re not supposed to block people mocking us. We’re supposed to sit there and take it. Sorry. There is nothing right about that.”...Jay Asher
Jon Ronson’s book is a plea for self-control, empathy, and compassion. He says social media is so young, it’s like a toddler crawling toward a gun.
It’s up to the grownups to stop the impending disaster. Be a grownup. Don’t bully. And report people who do.
There’s an old saying that advises us to ask ourselves, “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” before speaking.
Kindness is key here. In an op ed piece in the Washington Post this week, former white supremacist Arno Michelis said: “Being on the receiving end of violence did not make me less violent. It was the kindness of people who refused to lower themselves to my level that changed the course of my life.” …Arno Michelis
On this weekend when Americans are celebrating freedom and independence, let’s declare independence from the tyranny of the hive mind, trolls, and cyberbullies!
What about you, Scriveners? Have you been the victim of cyberbullying? Have you witnessed it? Have you participated in a public shaming? How did it make you feel? Do you report abuse when you see it? Do you have info on how to report abuse outside the USA? Do keep comments civil. Bullies will be deleted.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen), July 5, 2015