Do we need tougher cyberbullying legislation?
A Huffington Post article draws attention to a disturbing new form of cyberbullying: “RIP trolling”, or the practice of trolling online memorials to mock their alleged insincerity (“grief tourism”, according to the RIP trolls). The article champions “digital proxies” who, like the Patriot Guard Riders (who stand between the grieving families of fallen American soldiers and the Westboro Baptist Church), can filter out distressing online content. This also raises an important point: Do we need stricter cyberbullying legislation?
Hiding behind the coward’s veil of anonymity, cyber-bullies cause untold emotional distress and, in some cases, ruin lives. Unfortunately, the ultimate manifestation of the Internet’s ability to enable instant worldwide communications often boils down to petty name-calling and trolling. Like adult beverages, the relative anonymity of the World Wide Web gives sick individuals a sense of courage (to bully others).
Cyberbullying is a unique phenomenon because the perpetrators can take potshots with little fear of repercussions. Whereas “normal” bullies often get meted out “playground justice,” cyberbullies live consequence-free, emboldening them further.
And these digital cowards commit some truly unspeakable acts. Cyberbullies took particular pleasure in defaming the Facebook memorial page of Georgia Varley – a 16-year-old English girl who died when she fell between a Liverpool train and the platform. Beneath one photoshopped picture of Varley as an angel – with the words “an angel that will never be forgotten” – the trolls left appalling messages that don’t bear repeating (most of them have been deleted, but the morbidly curious can check out a sampling here).
What could possibly motivate such despicable behavior? A notorious troll (whose name I won’t celebrate by mentioning here) opined that “This isn’t grief. This is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief.” (This gentleman has actually been jailed, though not for the preceding verbal diarrhea.)
Personally, I would never publish my grief on a public forum like the Internet. For me, grief is a very individual experience that I need to sort through on my own (and possibly with an intimate group of close friends and family). And the Internet is anything but intimate. It’s loud. It’s public. And barring certain privacy settings, it’s an open forum, ripe for public criticism (no matter how inane or imbecilic).
But for many, sharing their grief in a public setting can be a very cathartic experience. And I’d never deny them of their own grieving process, even if I doubted their sincerity (which I don’t).
Here’s where it becomes thorny. Do we pass more stringent cyberbullying laws to protect online grievers? Or would such overly-broad legislation potentially infringe upon the 1st Amendment?
In fact, a number of such laws are already on the books. In the UK, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it illegal to “send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety” – a definition which applies to electronic communications as well. A 25-year-old – suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome – was prosecuted under this statute in 2011.
Across the pond, 47 USC § 223 prohibits “any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or child pornography, with intent to abuse, threaten, or harass another person.” (emphasis mine)
Would I have supported such legislation? I’m not sure. No sane person could condone malicious acts like RIP trolling. But the overly broad language of both these laws brings up a pressing concern – namely, that politicians or other celebrities could shut down dissent if they deem such actions abusive, threatening, or harassment. The UK’s anti-cyberbullying legislation is even broader. Imagine if we refrained from “causing distress or anxiety” during election cycles.
Nonetheless, these laws are on the books. And the last thing we need is more federal guidelines. My take: Instead of passing new laws, we should enforce existing ones.
What do you think? Do we need more draconian anti-cyberbullying legislation? Or would existing laws suffice? And are such laws even necessary?