Preaching to the choir: A new book on cyberbullying

I read this book late last year and postponed a review because I thought I’d write more about the topic. I still may do that, but right now, in the face of an increased barrage of stuff from Cybersmile (which is mentioned in the book), I thought I would just mention what is useful about the book for those who want actual tools for dealing with bullying as opposed to the hypersmarm approach they use on Twitter (some of which is found in this book as well, unfortunately).

Shame Nation

The book is Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate (2017), by Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr. Scheff is an advocate in the business of helping parents with children who need residential therapy or residential care, with a reputation built on the stance of opposing so-called “tough love” programs. She became the object of a defamation campaign after a dissatisfied customer of her service began posting criticisms on various Internet forums and social media sites. These criticisms proliferated and took on a life of their own, with an organized plan by her opponents to make sure that the charges were constantly visible. Eventually Scheff won a landmark $11.3 million settlement against her harasser. This case was not uncontroversial. Some observers have pointed out that the business area in which Scheff works (referral of troubled children to residential therapy centers) is one of questionable ethics, which in turn touches upon the credibility of Scheff’s claims. Scheff herself had been sued a few years earlier during a media / Internet tangle she initiated with an organization called WWASPS, and been upheld. While it is illegal in the U.S. to make false claims about business competitors, Scheff was able to show that her claims about WWASPS were true. She has also used some of the same “defense” tactics against her opponents on the Internet that she charges them with using (and she recommends this strategy in this book and elsewhere). All of this to say that while Scheff is an expert on the matters she’s discussing in this book, she’s not neutral. A quick scan of this book makes it clear that the act of defending against Internet defamation has become just as much of an industry as the organization of a defamation attack can be. Despite my reservations about the neutrality of the author, however, due her to extensive personal experience with the topic, I found parts of this book worthwhile.

I would advise readers of this blog to skip over the introduction by Monica Lewinsky (which, although Lewinsky claims to be the first victim of cyberbullying, clouds the issue, given the question of the political circumstances that surrounded her situation). Unless you’re completely out of it on this topic, skip part one (about 100 pages) as well; it’s a long description of horrible things that bulliers and shamers have done to people on the Internet. An important thing to note about this section is that Scheff more often uses the term “shaming” as opposed to “bullying.” This facilitates her general prescription for dealing with the problem, which is as follows:

Sue Scheff with Melissa Schorr, Shame Nation (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2017), pp. xxix-xxx. (This snippet is from Google Books).

Internet or shame culture?

If the problem is that the Internet magnifies the shame culture in which we live, for Scheff, the solution is to revisit our relationship with shaming and with our Internet behavior. On p. 58, she alleges that the majority of people want a “tamer digital culture.” I’m skeptical of this assertion on several grounds, not least because I think there is a difference between shaming and bullying, and because I think there are lines that need to be drawn around illegal behaviors vs. those that I or a group of people merely find distasteful. I also think that given the global nature of the Internet, we will never arrive at anything like a universal standard of what kind of Internet behavior is acceptable. Nor, in my opinion, would we want to. When I look at the stuff that Cybersmile tweets, I am often revolted by the sweetness. I honestly do not want people like that determining what the norms are for the Internet. I’m sure they feel the same way about me. I love the German cultural tendency to nitpick the heck out of everything; I find it tremendously productive; but I know that a lot of people don’t get it. Both Richard Armitage and Cybersmile left the fandom with a situation where the second anyone’s feelings are hurt, someone cries bullying. The current standard seems to be “bullying is conversational behavior that makes me uncomfortable.” Yet while I can try not to be mean according to my own ethics, I can never control how other people feel. And given that fandom is so heavily grounded in identity, we’re in a situation where people feel uniquely vulnerable. So we’re at an impasse. Laws can regulate illegal behavior, but we’re not going to eliminate cultural or behavioral conflict simply by “being nicer” or “taming digital culture.”

I similarly think the beginning part two of the book is not especially useful unless you are completely unfamiliar with this topic. One is that again there’s a difference between things that should be matters of Internet security (not revealing your birthdate or social security number) and those that are related to the actual topic of cyberbullying or shaming. It’s true that making errors in the former can come back to haunt you if you become the object of cyberbullying, but these matters are much more inflexible issues than the latter question (what kind of statement you’re making about yourself on the Internet). The second is that a lot of the advice will be out of date in six months. Social media changes its terms of service all the time and things you didn’t know were being shared are now suddenly available. Not sharing pictures of your kids publicly is great advice, except of course that depending on which photo hosting service you use they may become property of the host anyway the second you post them and the only way to avoid this will be not to put them anywhere in the Internet. No, don’t share nudes of yourself, even with a lover. But be aware that it’s easy nowadays to photoshop a picture of your head onto someone else’s naked body anyway. And the third is that some of the behavior she advocates — only sharing positive news about yourself (p. 151) — is part of what makes social media so aggravating. I’ve blocked or muted more than one real-life friend on FB for “facebragging,” which is part of her solution to making the Internet a more positive place. Om, no. More about this in a bit.

What is to be done?

However, and this is the reason I am blogging about the book, chapters 7 and 8 of the book are an interesting read and probably the best discussion I’ve read of what to do if you’re being trolled or cybershamed. This is something Armitage fans have discussed with varying results — most prefer the “playground advice” of ignoring harassment, but simultaneously, many if not most targets of cybershaming in the fandom have not been able to keep quiet about the opprobrium aimed in their direction, either. In chapter 7, Scheff makes the crucial (and in my opinion, correct) point that the optimal response strategy depends not just on the quality of the harassment, but also on the personality of the target. She details six possible responses: ignoring / muting / blocking; activism (talking about the experience to others); fighting (actively responding to harassment); flouncing (leaving the platform entirely); humanizing / explaining yourself to the harasser; empathizing with the harasser; and apologizing (if you’re the aggressor and are getting blowback). No single strategy is going to suit everyone (and when I think back to my own experiences as target, I used a combination of some of these rather than any single one, based on my own priorities and ethics).

In chapter 8, Scheff discusses legal remedies and ways to use the Internet against one’s attackers (online reputation management), as well as mentioning some resources in the U.S. for gaining assistance (this is where she mentions Cybersmile). However, we still have no solid information on its financials. Similarly, she recommends Crash Override Network, founded by some Gamergate survivors, but there is some evidence that CON is not what it seems to be. So, always be sure to check if you’re going to donate to these organizations or even get on their bandwagon on social media, for, as Scheff stresses, the Internet can be permanent. I liked one approach suggested by the Tyler Clementi Foundation, mentioned in chapter 9 (here’s a link, for those unfamiliar with this horrifying story): intervene when you see others truly being bullied. (And it doesn’t cost any money; this foundation is not rated by Charity Navigator.) This can be tricky, because I’ve more than once observed real bullying in our fandom occur among people who acted in the name of exposing a bully. However, something I was told a long time ago was that even if you can’t physically intervene in an incident of physical abuse, you can witness it and this sometimes gets the abuser to stop.

To me, that section ended the utility of the book, mostly because the remainder is devoted to more prescriptions about behavior. I don’t object to recommendations as such, or to anyone responding in positive or restorative ways to their experience as a target, but this section reinforces the impression I have that the only people who will read this book are those who feel themselves victimized by the Internet “shame culture” or the “global epidemic of online hate.” The people who actually commit the crimes and misdemeanors described in this book (as one of Scheff’s own chapters demonstrates) don’t think they need to change the behavior. And my experiences with the fringe cases (people who are shaming but don’t realize it — in the Armitage fandom this is the fan police) suggests that the moment they realize or are told what they are doing, they become defensive and go on the offensive. I’ve had this experience again and again. As I’ve said before many times: no one thinks SHE is the problem. I’d prefer a simpler approach: let everyone have his own conscience. And I’d prefer stronger privacy regulations in the U.S., and perhaps an enhancement of the enforcement of the defamation rules.

Nonetheless: chapters 7, 8 and 9 are worth your time, should you run across this book.

~ by Servetus on March 24, 2018.

3 Responses to “Preaching to the choir: A new book on cyberbullying”

  1. It sounds as though the book is over reaching, trying to pull too many topics under a big umbrella. I would think it would confuse the issue, more than offer a realistic way of dealing with it. Either way, I try to be kind, but I always know when I have crossed the line, and regret it. If you don’t have a conscience to begin with, no book is going to change you.

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    • the author is a relentless self-promoter (hence also the sensationalist title and subtitle). But I couldn’t agree with you more. The call should be to look at one’s own behaviors. On the whole I’m not sad that about the disappearing influence of religion in the U.S. — it has done too much to harm too many people. But it was one tool that people had for querying their own behavior that most are no longer familiar with. I don’t know how you get people to examine their own assumptions and statements more closely, but I do know telling people how to behave is pointless.

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  2. […] How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate. Picked up after reading Shame Nation. Memoir of the initial GamerGate target with suggestions about how to respond. The first half will […]

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