Today’s decision by the US Supreme Court sent a clear message about the importance of context for making decisions about what we see online. It was bad news for victims of online harassment and their advocates but good news for parents of kids not thinking about the impact of their online speech and actions.
“The Supreme Court ruled in favor of “a Pennsylvania man who posted several violent messages [against his estranged wife] on Facebook and was convicted under a federal threat statute,” CNN reported. But if this ruling comes up in classroom or family discussions, it’s important for parents and educators to tell kids that this decision was not the US’s highest court saying that physical threats in social media is acceptable. What the Court’s saying is that the lower court that convicted the man for his online speech didn’t have enough to convict him “based solely on the idea that a reasonable person would regard” the man’s comments in Facebook as a threat. “The Court held that the legal standard used to convict him was too low, but left open what the standard should be.”
The decision was about legal process not what people can or can’t say online or even how what’s said should be taken by others. It says that courts – and in the case of young people, parents, school administrators and law enforcement – need context. They can’t rely on what any “reasonable person” sees in a post or comment to decide what to do about the post or comment.
Though extremely difficult for targets of online harassment and bullying to hear, the decision might make things easier for kids who make cruel-seeming or stupid but honest mistakes. It shows that decisionmakers – from parents to school officials to online services to law enforcement – need to investigate enough to get a handle on intentions – whether malicious or mistaken. That’s what Internet and social media helplines are for and why I decided to help develop one for schools in the United States. It’s certainly important and helpful to get harassing or hateful content taken down that violates Terms of Service, but helplines are also about helping decision makers of all kinds, including online services get much-needed offline context. Because people who didn’t grow up with the Internet making decisions about people who did sometimes don’t understand that online speech isn’t a problem all by itself existing in a vacuum – that what happens online is more about our humanity, what’s going on in our heads, everyday lives and relationships, than our technology. Because in this digital age, with new degrees of anonymity and transparency and “speech” distributed across vast distances, context is more important than ever.
But this cannot, must not, lesson the need – greater than ever too – for all young users of digital media to have classes in what might be called Digital Age Literacy, which includes digital literacy, media literacy, ethics and social literacy, or social-emotional learning.