by JAMILA RIZVI
On Wednesday night a line got crossed. Host of Australia’s Next Top Model, Charlotte Dawson was hospitalised following a horrific stream of abuse being sent her way via social media.
This wasn’t mere sticks-and-stones or have-a-spoon-full-of-concrete kind of stuff. This was a sustained and vitriolic attack over several hours from dozens of people – each of them urging Charlotte to end her life.
I repeat. On Wednesday night a line got crossed.
The problem is that I’m not exactly sure where that line was.
Or at what point it got crossed. Or by whom.
When things like this happen, we look around for someone to blame. Because blame makes us feel better about what happened. Blame gives us someone or something to direct our anger at. Blame is part of how we assure ourselves that it won’t happen again and it won’t happen to us or someone we love.
But I’ll tell you something: blame is the easy part.
You can blame the people who wrote those horrible things, you can blame Charlotte for fueling the fire by engaging with them, you can blame Twitter for providing a platform for such things to be said, you can blame the Government for not policing social media better… Hell, you can blame the advent of the Internet itself.
What is much harder though and where the conversation absolutely MUST go next, is one step further along the thought process from blame – and that, is responsibility.
Sadly, we live in a world where it often takes an incident involving the cult of celebrity to make us sit up and take notice. So let’s notice. What Charlotte Dawson experienced this week is akin to the kind of cyber bullying that countless young people are subjected to every day.
Yes, there have always been and there will always be bullies. But what happens to kids today is not like it used to be. Where you used to be able to go safely home at the end of the day and leave it all behind – you can’t any more – because the bullies are on your parent’s computer, on your laptop, on your iPad and on your smart phone.
They can get to you. 24. Hours. A. Day.
There will be those who say Charlotte Dawson should have just switched off. That she should have reported the abuse, blocked the users, logged off Twitter, closed her laptop and walked away.
And I tend to agree with them. Of course that would have been the best and most sensible course of action. But it’s far easier said than done. And if a confident and successful adult finds it difficult to ignore this kind of extreme bullying – imagine how hard that is for a 12-year-old kid.
So let’s talk about responsibility.
The law in this area is murky at best. In fact, that’s the understatement of the year. The law in this area is like Sydney Harbour following a series of massive thunderstorms, before the chemical industry were told to stop dumping in there and exactly 364 days since the last Clean Up Australia Day.
The reason for this is that our criminal statutes don’t adequately reflect the way in which social media is coming to dominate communication. There is practically no specific legislation in this area, which means our courts are forced to try and fit these ‘modern’ crimes into the definitions which were written at a time when menacing phone calls to brick-sized mobile telephones were at the cutting edge of modernity.
The closest we’ve got in our criminal law as it currently stands is harassment. Harassment is (most helpfully) not defined by the Commonwealth Crimes Act and the Australian courts have previously set the bar pretty high when it comes to proving online harassment. But certainly to a layperson, what happened to Charlotte fits within the court’s previous interpretations of harassment.
But who is responsible? Was it the person who sent the first abusive tweet? The person who first urged Charlotte to harm herself? Was it the person who started the ‘hashtag’ to that effect? Or was it the person whose tweet, so compounded how vulnerable and alone Charlotte was feeling, even if it wasn’t the worst of what was hurled at her?
And if we’re looking at the bigger picture, at what this means for school kids who bully other school kids – we all know that criminal action isn’t the answer. However harsh or cruel the taunts, in the end they’re just kids. Right?
There will be calls for action following what has happened to Charlotte. There will be the usual to-and-fro between the states and the Commonwealth, the communications ministers and attorneys general as to exactly whose problem this is. Nobody will want the responsibility because let’s face it: seeking to legislate around the Internet is a minefield nobody wants to go near.
The issue of who takes responsibility is compounded ever further by the fact that Charlotte Dawson isn’t a universally loved figure. Charlotte is no angel. She is a polarising media personality, who a lot of people aren’t fans of. This doesn’t mean she is in any way to blame for what happened to her but it does mean that people will be less willing to rush to her defence.
People in the public eye must recognise that criticism does comes with their celebrity status. Yes. But what happened on Wednesday night went so far beyond what anyone should ever have to put up with. It was on an entirely different scale to the usual taunts and jibes and digs that the Twitter world throws up. It was the work of a cyber mob.
One solution that will no doubt be offered up, is that social media and networking sites should have more checks and balances to ensure people are held accountable for what they say.
People write horrible things on the Internet. And there is something about the anonymity of being online, that emboldens people to say incredibly personal and hateful things to complete strangers.
If we remove the ability to remain anonymous or to have multiple accounts under different names, would that even make a difference? How would it even be achieved?
And what about where anonymity is used for the betterment of a cause? Try telling young women in Saudi Arabia or Hazaran Afghanis or the people of Syria that they have to put their real names to a Twitter account. The fact is that sometimes anonymity is crucial and a necessary shield for those who speak out against oppression.
I honestly don’t have an answer. The thing that scares me is that the people who I’d like to hope would have an answer – the policy makers, the law enforcers, the owners of social media – don’t seem to have one either.
A line was crossed on Wednesday night. I don’t know exactly where it lies. And nor do they.
But for the sake of the 12-year-old kid who is being relentlessly bullied around the clock and doesn’t know how to escape or where to turn – we need to have this conversation. Even if none of us have the answers yet.
Until we come up with a solution, until we come up with a way to embrace all the weird and wonderful advantages of the Internet, while still having limits to shield people from its darker side – let’s remember this:
Be excellent to each other. Every day.
Don’t write anything online that you wouldn’t be willing to say to someone in person. And when you go to write something personally critical on social media – ask yourself why you feel the need to have an audience for your criticism.
By all means, have the debates, involve yourself in the discussion of issues, disagree with one another and demand better of your governments and of the media.
But let’s do so kindly, let’s do so respectfully and let’s always remember that there is a real person reading what you write and you never know how they might be feeling that particular day.
It goes without saying that comments on this post need to remain respectful – otherwise they will be deleted immediately.