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Online harassment, bullying: Wisdom from someone who’s been there

To mark National Bullying Prevention Month, here – in addition to some fresh research on bystanders further down – are some simple but powerful insights from someone who has been and continues to be subjected to severe online harassment and is now helping other victims recover from it….

CC licensed

CC licensed

“I’m a game developer, I’m a systems thinker so I can see patterns in behavior,” said Zoe Quinn, who, at the XOXOfest 2015 conference, shared some behavior patterns she’s picked up on as a target of sustained online abuse associated with last year’s hashtag storm called #gamergate (as The New Yorker described it, her main “crime” and a big reason for all the harassment was Depression Quest, a free game she created to help people deal with depression). Quinn is also leveraging all she’s learned to help run Crash Override Network, which she co-founded to support victims of large-scale online abuse. With thanks to Kevin Marks for his notes from her talk, here are some observations from Quinn that anyone interested in bullying prevention might find helpful or confirming:

  • Upstanding is influential. “I talked to 300 former trolls and asked why they stopped. They said someone they looked up to said it wasn’t cool.”
  • Dehumanization’s the problem. “Another thing that got the trolls backing off,” she said, “is humanizing the target, not making [the target] a caricature.” This reminds me of deeper psychological insight from MIT Prof. Sherry Turkle in the New York Times last week: that when there’s a disconnect with ourselves, we can disconnect with and marginalize others.
  • Filling a void. Wise adults have been saying this to young bullying victims for years, but Quinn adds a fresh insight about the online kind: The cruel behavior is “not really about the target, it’s about belonging to the group that is attacking.”

  • Manufactured threat. “Most people participating in online harassment think they’re the good guys. They all have a secret conspiracy theory that you are secretly rich so they can still be the underdog” and justify their attacks.
  • Great advice to bystanders: “No single snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche that crashes down on people. Don’t be a snowflake in someone else’s avalanche,” Quinn said.

Bystanders who choose to help (new research)

Speaking of bystanders choosing who to support, aggressor or target, there’s fresh data on that – where youth are concerned, anyway (the above holds for people of all ages, I believe). A study just published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that, “in most incidents, kids really try to support victims,” lead author Lisa Jones at University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center said (maybe we all have something to learn from young people!). Some key findings were that…

  • Bystanders (witnesses) are present for 80% of harassment incidents.
  • In about 70% of those incidents, victims said a bystander tried to make them feel better.
  • Negative bystander reactions (e.g., laughing or joining in the harassment) were “considerably less frequent,” but “still occurred in nearly a quarter of incidents and were associated with a significantly higher negative impact on the victim,” the authors reported.
  • In 60% of the cases, adults were notified (a much higher percentage than in research from the last decade). “Half the time [the adults] made things better; they almost never made things worse, 11% of the time they didn’t do anything; and 35% of the time what they did made no difference,” Jones said in an email.

The study made an important discovery about “secondary bystanders” – the people who weren’t present at the incident but heard about it later. They’re important too. The authors said it’s time to broaden our definition of “bystander,” because “really anyone, child or adult, who hears about a harassment or bullying situation is in a place to help. Prevention efforts can target everyone as a potential bystander and let them know there are a lot of things they can do to try and help.”

The study wasn’t able to determine what kinds of support helps targets the most, but targets told researchers in an earlier study, the “Youth Voice Project,” that being heard and acknowledged by someone who cared helped a lot.

Wise to what’s happening

As for the purely online, random and anonymous kind of harassment and attempts at public humiliation that people of all ages continue to face, some may take comfort from Zoe Quinn’s comment that most bystanders are wise to what they’re witnessing:

“I’ve come to realize that most sane people can see through a smear campaign – groups who actually have a righteous cause are usually able to express it without using [obscene insults]. It’s hard to dress up petty harassment as a crusade, and the people who refuse to see it for what it is would find a reason to hate me regardless,” she told “Of course, that won’t … make the crude Photoshops of you vanish. It won’t stop the nightmares or the paranoia or the fear that someone will make good on those threats,” all of which she and other targets continue to experience. But she can also say, “Eventually things will move forward, and you’ll still have your friends to help you pick up the pieces,” and she and her friends have created Crash Override Network to help people get there.

Related links

  • Here is Zoe Quinn’s talk at XOXO Fest (posted by the conference after I posted this piece).
  • Further insight from a “troll” who apologized: In the case of author and journalist Lindy West, another target of vicious online harassment, one of her attackers ended up apologizing to her (after having created “a fake Twitter profile for her recently deceased father”). Listen to the profound account on public radio show “This American Life,” where we hear her attacker sadly aknowledging, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” [See coverage of the story also at]
  • An in-depth profile of Zoe Quinn at last spring – where readers learn how and why she’s leveraging her notoriety and ongoing harassment for others’ good
  • Another well-researched account of Quinn’s story at Boston Globe Magazine
  • Tech likely not the main problem in cyberbullying” about a very recent milestone study about in-person, digital-only and mixed in-person/digital harassment from the CCRC
  • Powerful lessons for preventing bullying and cyberbullying” (including very current data from the federal government) and much more on cyberbullying at NetFamilyNews
  • An in-depth look at doxing (making a target’s personal information public online, a form of harassment to which Quinn and many other #gamergate targets have been subjected) by criminology professor Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center and the Center’s top picks for instructive videos about cyberbullying  (we advise educators to be very judicious about picking videos to screen this National Bullying Prevention Month).
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