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Is the bullying problem really in cyberspace?

Stephen Bell | Oct. 16, 2012
The Law Commission was already putting together its thoughts on the impact of "new" media for the government's attention, when Justice Minister Judith Collins asked it to fast-track the part of the report dealing with "harmful digital communication".

The Law Commission was already putting together its thoughts on the impact of "new" media for the government's attention, when Justice Minister Judith Collins asked it to fast-track the part of the report dealing with "harmful digital communication".

Lawcom has issued a Ministerial Briefing and a draft Bill which media -- and Law Commission commentators - have characterised as the "cyberbullying Bill".

The problem of bullying needs to be tackled, but it extends over a far wider realm than the online environment. The Commission, to be fair, does make some recommendations on general anti-bullying programmes in schools. However, "new" technology is disproportionately stigmatised.

Since this initiative sprang from a larger project on "new media" it is easy to see why it was considered in this light; but that pedigree risks imbalance. If we consider the logical Venn diagram of a circle indicating "harmful communication" overlapping with one indicating "digital", it's evident that the Commission has been more willing to stray into broader-ranging controls on digital communication than it has been to tackle harmful communication that is not digital.

The report tells the story of a young woman induced while drunk to do things she would normally not have done. The acts were recorded on a mobile phone. She was repeatedly vilified and eventually forced to leave her school and the area. Reading this disgraceful account, it seems plain that 90 percent of what happened was unacceptable "live" behaviour. Digital media were concerned only in making recording and distribution easier. Yet the affair is held up as somehow the fault of technology.

The reasons given for treating digital harm separately from other forms are debatable at best. Digital harm is quickly distributed "all over the world", says project leader John Burrows QC. However, unless the subject is a celebrity, any comment will quickly outrun the limited group of people motivated to make anything of it.

I recall as a child being brought into ridicule by comments incised into a door at my school.

The group who cared about that was more or less the group who could see the door. If the comment had been on a website the harm would not have been any greater.

It's easier to take down a website than a door; the school even claimed it didn't have the budget to expunge the graffiti.

Digital harm is much easier to promulgate anonymously, says Burrows. I don't know that that contention holds much water either. Journalists frequently encounter word-of-mouth allegations whose source is unknown. Gossip in any medium quickly outruns the threads of reliable attribution.

The best we can do is seek attributable corroboration of the rumour and, of course, ask for comment from the party about whom the allegation is made. Failure to do that is a fault of society, not technology.

 

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