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Beginning of the end of #purge, revenge porn or social cruelty?

We so want to believe it: that the fact that Twitter and Instagram are actively taking down #purge-related accounts signals “the tipping point of this particular phenomenon – and its end has begun,” as professor, author and cyberbullying expert Sameer Hinduja writes in an informative blog post.

purgeIt’s very possible we’re seeing the tipping point of this week’s hot Hollywood premiere-inspired digital-social-cruelty phenomenon. The number of posts and tweets with hashtags containing the word “purge” – associated with the just-released sequel of last year’s “gimmicky … violently satirical chiller” about one state-sanctioned day to “release the beast” within, according to Hollywood Reporter’s review of the 2013 original Purge film – just may be going down.

Let’s hope. We want that tipping point not only because of the cruel thinking and behavior on display in those tweets and posts but also because of the impact we know they can have on some of the people targeted by them. As Dr. Hinduja describes the #purge phenomenon, some users are “mouthing off in malicious, cruel, and offensive ways (typically against others),” and “the most troubling subset of participants are posting nude pictures of ex-girlfriends and others they wish to humiliate and demean (including those who are underage).”

The real problem

But let’s be clear on what we want stopped and how that can be done. What we’re seeing, here, is only the latest sick manifestation (#purge) of the problem: “malicious mouthing off,” revenge seeking, misogyny, abuse, public humiliation, etc. acted out in a user-driven, global medium – the digital versions of attitudes and behaviors that have been acted out in all kinds of places for a very long time, maybe in cave drawings (their increased exposure may even now be increasing and accelerating their marginalization).

Can laws help? That’s not clear. More than a dozen US states now have laws that criminalize one of these destructive digital behaviors, revenge porn, Hinduja reports, but that’s just in those states and – even if a law could criminalize it for the whole country (he writes there’s a proposal for one “being floated in DC”) – this is just one country, the behavior could be on a server anywhere on the planet, and regulating online expression or behavior is very tricky. Hinduja links to a post by law professor Eric Goldman detailing problems with California’s law, for example. Goldman writes that, in order to past First Amendment muster, these laws need to reference “intent to cause serious emotional distress,” which is hard to measure and prove. So how well and how much can laws by themselves help? [See this for how much impact a well-intended law in Europe can really have.]

The corporate responsibility that Facebook (owner of Instagram) and Twitter are showing can help reduce the visibility of the hate and, possibly, any harm it does to the subjects of those tweets and posts. So that’s a very important part of the solution. But the social media providers can only take action within their services, of course, and only to an extent, because deleting accounts doesn’t delete the underlying cruel intention, which can pop right back up almost instantly, whack-a-mole style, in the form of new anonymous accounts in the same service or in apps and sites of less ethical companies or individuals or in other media. A determined hater won’t necessarily stop at the “borders” of a single app or service – or, for that matter, keep the hate online.

Scary new conditions

We tend to focus on social media as the problem because of the new conditions it brings to human expression: the potential for instant mass distribution by anyone. It’s because that condition – like other ones, such as transparency, instant searchability, unpredictable permanence – is new and thus extra scary (because the human race hasn’t had a chance to work out the solutions) that we focus on the media not the behaviors. As a society, we need to focus more on the behavior in order to work out solutions that address the problem. And not in isolation. Whether we’re parents or policymakers, we need to look at the behavior in relation to the conditions of the media where it turns up and the user’s offline context as well as to what laws and other mechanisms for dealing with it offline are already in place.

We need to understand the medium better before writing laws and policies concerning it. The solutions to problems turning up in social media are by definition social: collective, collaborative, distributed, grassroots. Everybody’s needed, especially users. Responsible corporate practice helps (but there are plenty of anti-social media companies). Informed lawmaking may help with deterrence. But these are just parts of a whole ecosystem of solutions that only logically must include peer-to-peer approaches. Terms of service, codes of ethics, online community moderators and other solutions of services big and small are also key pieces of the puzzle.

Hardware store

Photo by Tim Green (CC licensed)

Key role of social norms

But the powerful piece of the solution spectrum that hasn’t shown up in the public discussion anywhere nearly enough yet is social norms. They’re norms, so of course we don’t think about them much. But we need to. For thousands of years, they’ve reinforced positive behaviors and marginalized negative ones in physical spaces worldwide. Their preventive and protective powers are needed more than ever in today’s very social media environment. We need to be conscious of that and begin talking about their positive role in digital spaces, consciously reinforcing and promoting them in risk prevention education, awareness campaigns, ethics discussions and school and corporate culture.

Why? Because we are all creators and practitioners of the social norms of our social environments, certainly including digital ones. We need to communicate not just to our children but digital community members of all ages how important each one is to making their community great for oneself, one’s peers and the community as a whole – so that each member supports the purpose of that community and the work, play or learning of every member there for that purpose. This goes beyond turning bystanders (witnesses to harmful behavior) into upstanders; that’s remedial work. This is about co-creating and co-maintaining norms that make a community a great place to be.

Other ‘tools’ in the solution toolbox

Community norms are an essential tool in the toolbox of solutions to revenge porn and other forms of trolling in media where behavior can be acted out so impulsively and mass-distributed from anywhere so quickly. It’s the collective solution, and it does take time to grow awareness and participation, community by community.

We need to get on with the awareness-raising because, in the meantime, some people will tragically continue to get hurt. So another key set of tools in the toolbox is developed from the inside out: resilience, empathy, respect for self and others, an inner guidance system (or “moral compass”) and the literacies of digital social media. Resilience is vital in cases of anonymous cruelty. It’s with us wherever we go, online and offline, and it’s what keeps cruelty from being harmful (see some of these posts for more on growing resilience). Sometimes it even exposes cruelty for what it is, grows the target’s strength and strengthens others (see this resilient New Jersey teen’s story).

So there’s a spectrum of solutions, and in user-driven media, we the users need to be aware of and make use of all of them, with and for each other, in order to expose and defeat anti-social behaviors and thrive in a networked world. If you believe all the news coverage, it’s tempting to see social media as a platform for cruelty, but greater exposure of a problem does not equal a bigger problem. In fact, quite the opposite is possible. The exposure of cruelty is often the beginning of its demise, right? This is an age of unprecedented transparency, which is good, bad and neutral, but sometimes there’s something to be said for transparency. We may even eventually come to see it as another tool in the anti-anti-social cruelty toolbox.

Please see my sidebar, “Zooming in on social norms,” for more on that subject, and do share your solutions for trolling, revenge porn and other social cruelty online in comments below.

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