Confessions of a professional cyberbully

'I'm a cyberbully, at least according to Manitoba's Conservatives,' writes Jesse Brown


I guess I’m a cyberbully, at least according to Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives.

From their private member’s bill, tabled last Wednesday:

“cyberbullying” means any form of electronic
communication, including social media, text
messaging, instant messaging, websites and e-mail,
typically repeated or with continuing effect, that is
intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause
fear, intimidation, humiliation or other damage or
harm to another person’s health, emotional
well-being, self-esteem or reputation, and includes
assisting or encouraging such communication in any
way. (« cyberintimidation »)

I regularly set out to humiliate people and harm their reputations on the Internet. On a good week, I might damage some self-esteem to boot. I don’t set out to intimidate or terrify my targets, but sometimes those emotional responses could be reasonably expected.

It all falls under the general job description of journalist and/or critic, but I needn’t invoke any particular professional credo to justify my behaviour. Mockery and reputation smearing aren’t just for the pros. Anyone can do it and most of us have. Hopefully we have a greater end than just making our subjects miserable, but that’s really beside the point. We have Charter rights to free expression, whether or not we use them to be nice.

I know that the Tory bill is unlikely to become law. It’s a reaction to another ridiculous bullying bill, tabled in May by Manitoba’s ruling NDP government. Their definition of bullying is even broader, as it leaves out the “cyber” part:

 In this Act, “bullying” is behaviour that

(a) is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property; or

(b) is intended to create, or should be known to create, a negative school environment for another person.

I’m pretty sure we already have laws against harming another person’s body or property. But outlawing the intention to hurt someone’s feelings is a bizarre government intrusion that could only have been borne of moral panic.

Quantifying bullying is as difficult as defining it. Most studies rely on surveys filled out by kids who have been inundated with anti-bullying messaging. Even then, there’s often no clear trend upwards — Statistics Canada found bullying numbers dropping and then stagnating from 2006-2009.

My hunch is that the overall level of cruelty among children is probably pretty constant. What’s changing is the documentation of this behaviour. Before social media, parents were rarely privy to what was said to, or by, their kids on the schoolyard. Today, permanent digital records are shocking grown-ups.

These messages, so easily repeated, are not harmless and should not be ignored. But criminalizing “cyberbullying” as a unique aberration worthy of zero-tolerance punishment is a bad idea.

A hypothetical example: a teacher learns that 12-year-old Mike has posted “Everyone hates you and I wish you were dead!” on schoolmate Evan’s Facebook wall. It’s a clear instance of cyberbullying. Parents, principals and police are notified, Mike is expelled and charged, his parents sued. What isn’t documented electronically is that before taking his rage to Facebook, Mike was beaten up by Evan every afternoon for a month.

Social media payback is often the refuge of victims, physically weak kids who are afraid or unable to stand up for themselves in person. Singling them out for special punishment by school administrators, or by the law, is itself a form of (dare I say it) bullying.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown