Tag Archives: punishment

Bullying in the networked public

I was bullied two days ago. I was at a bus stop with a few other strangers when a ‘P plater’ with two friends stopped a car on the side of the road opposite us and began heckling. I was listening to a podcast and trying to ignore them so I didn’t hear exactly what they said to me, their final victim, before driving off, but I believe the taunts may have raised witty questions about the status of my sex.

I wanted to tell myself that this didn’t get to me, but it did. It wasn’t that I felt insulted – if anything, that I heard the same taunts from twelve-year-olds when I was growing up is an insult to their wit – it was because people felt this sort of behaviour was something they could get away with. Words can hurt, badly, and this just isn’t acceptable. But what could I do about it? Paying attention to bullies only makes it more enjoyable for them, and responding can escalate the situation.

As a common target for bullying, I was no stranger to the ‘light bulb moment’ experienced soon after a confrontation when you realise the wittiest response you could – but rarely ‘should’ – have made. This time it was different, though; rather than the typical, verbal, “No, sir, I think you’ll find it is you who is silly looking”, a better idea better came to me, something frightening in its simplicity to change the uneven power structure I found myself in:

Pull out a camera. Say nothing. Begin filming.

This digital disarmament would work because, even if they drive off laughing at their victims, there is a looming question about what did and what will happen. Would I give the film to the police? But they can’t do anything – can they? Would I give it to local high schools and attempt to contact their parents? What if I managed to find them and attempted blackmail? Would I post it on YouTube, using their license plate for the video title, and attempt to find more identifying information about them to better illustrate the monument to public shaming, forcing them to own their actions for the rest of their lives?

Or, perhaps, I wasn’t even filming at all. This ambiguity is, I would argue, far more concerning than a single act of cowardly verbal abuse toward a stranger – in many cases, at least. Where the abusers had control over a brief situation, I may now have control over personally identifiable and incriminating information about them – information that is infinitely reproducible and not ‘lossy’. The power dynamic is immediately reconfigured. The uneven power has been dissipated from my transgressors and I immediately have the upper-hand.

With the average citizen’s gradually increased potential to be an instant surveillance recording device, such a response becomes more and more likely. In fact, ‘license plate titled YouTube videos’ and similar responses could easily become a ‘thing’ that – once public knowledge – parents, employers, schools and other authoritative institutions may routinely search for.

The part of me who remembers growing up as a daily target of bullying can certainly see the benefits of such technology trends. Once people realise their actions may be monitored, the tendency to taunt others could be reduced, and this is certainly a positive result.

However, such a lesson may be learned at the expense of (for lack of a better term) ‘reverse-bullying’, which could produce longer lasting effects. Not only has the bully’s power been reduced, the victim is now able to respond with a retaliation action that has potential negative consequences larger than the original act of bullying. And this new power, in the hands of one who has been forced into a defensive position, may be difficult to restrain.

Education becomes an important issue here. In addition to the many complex concepts about information flows and identity ‘the youth of today’ need to learn in order to protect themselves in our digital society, we need to make explicit the consequences of recording devices. On the one hand, we should not post things about others. On the other, we shouldn’t bully because others can post things about us if we do, or our actions can be easily traced (cyber-bullying and IP addresses) and we can be punished. But disarming both actions through education could make everyone paranoid about surveillance.

Education is not my area of expertise so I may leave the questions on teaching children about surveillance and the effects this has on social freedom for another time. The issues around reverse-bullying strongly resonate with me, however, as a person who strongly believes in the power of reform over that of punishment. The temporal nature of digital media increases the power of punishment exponentially in this scenario, and the act of passive retaliation – say, having a camera visible to make a statement of ambiguity but not recording at all – is only successful if there is a sense that punishment effects are a real possibility, which would not be the case if everyone was passive. So, in short, people are going to get hurt.

But people have been getting hurt for many, many years as the victims of bullying. Even if the odd tragedy is inevitable, I do feel the popularisation of digital recording devices could improve the situation overall. I just wonder if I’m being overly optimistic.