Diary of a cyberbullying victim

By MARK PEARSON

My research and writing on social media law got all too personal last week when a cyberbully threatened to open a website claiming I am a rapist.

Some months ago I posted to my research blog journlaw.com a fair and accurate report of a Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision that this individual had been fairly dismissed from his workplace.

It was an interesting case in social media law because his termination resulted from his offensive Facebook remarks about his workplace, a client and a prospective colleague.

According to the judgment, he had previously been warned about using company time and resources to start a private website.

Tellingly, the Commission’s decision stated the individual had shown no apology or regret for his behaviour and had maintained he was entitled to do it, offering his employer and the Commission ‘little comfort that similar incidents would not occur in the future’.

Other legal and HR experts posted summaries of the decision to their blogs and websites, including some of Australia’s leading law firms.

A fortnight ago he wrote to several of us asking that we change some elements of our coverage detailing the Commission’s finding that he had written sexually harassing comments about a colleague. He also wrote to senior staff at my university about the matter.

I responded that I believed my report of the case constituted a fair and accurate report of material on the public record.

However, I explained that I understood the blogs might be causing him ongoing angst and that their appearance on search engines could have other implications for him. I had therefore replaced his name throughout my post with the initials of his name, although I had left his full name in the case citation.

I said I was keen to correct any inaccuracies and asked him to point out any errors in my reporting. I ended the note by suggesting he seek counselling if the episode had caused him undue distress and I provided the Beyond Blue and Lifeline toll free numbers.

A few days later this bombshell landed in my inbox:

“Your article makes it seem like I sexually harassed a work colleague and it appears that you do not understand the impact this can have.

“To help give you a little perspective I am currently registering markpearsonisarapist@wordpress

“If you have a change of heart please feel free to send me an email.”

Attached to the message was this graphic illustrating the availability of the website he was threatening to establish:

GraphicOfWordpressRapistPearsonThreatI have written books and articles citing scores of examples where cyberbullies have attacked other victims.

But you only appreciate the anxiety and powerlessness of cyber-victimhood when you are the direct target of such a threat and your own name and reputation are on the line.

My recent research and writing has been exploring ‘mindful’ approaches to journalism and social media law and ethics, so I did not want to engage in an email flame war with this individual or give a heated kneejerk response.

The official cyberbullying sites like the Australian Government’s cyber(smart) recommend a “talk, report, support” approach, advising a victim should talk about the threat to someone they trust, avoid retaliating or responding, block the bully and change privacy settings, report the abuse to the service, and collect the evidence.

I took some of this advice by discussing it with family and friends, screen capturing the correspondence, and advising the other bloggers who had reported the case that he had issued this serious threat against me.

However, given he had not yet registered the offensive site, I thought I would appraise him of the illegality of his threat and give him 24 hours to withdraw it and apologise.

I wrote explaining his email threat was likely in breach of several state and federal laws carrying the risk of substantial fines and jail terms, including blackmail, misuse of a carriage service, stalking and harassment and that I was prepared to press such charges against him.

Five hours later he responded:

“Your panic is not needed. I have not registered any accounts citing that you are a rapist, I simply exclaimed that I would to wonderfully illustrate my point about making damaging claims against others.

“Isn’t it a little funny how you’re happy to publish articles that insinuate that an individual is a sexual predator but once somebody propositions you with the same action you instantly threaten to contact the authorities?

“I understand that you have no intention of taking this matter any further, are probably just a little bored and like myself enjoy sticking to your principles and engaging in a good argument. I would have thought that you’d have something more important to be working on but I guess I was wrong, either way, I have a lot of time also. 😛

“Please advise when [my original blog post] has been removed entirely.”

So there it stands. It seems the threat has dissipated, but I’m unsure of what – if anything – I should do next.

A mindful approach involves reflecting upon the implications of one’s actions for all stakeholders and seeking counsel.

I thought it would be a useful learning experience for the 200 students in my Media Law course, so I put my dilemma to them in last week’s lecture. I also asked them to vote on which of three courses of action they recommended I should take.

Here are the options, with some of the students’ observations:

  1. Have him charged. About half the students in the lecture voted for this option. They felt that’s how you should deal with cyberbullies. The guy has ‘form’ and has clearly not learnt his lesson. He has escalated his tactics with this serious and intimidating threat. Next time his victim might be a much more vulnerable individual than a university professor who researches and publishes in the field. It might be someone in a fragile emotional state and there could be tragic consequences – just like we saw in the royal prank call episode.
  2. Do nothing and let it drop. About one quarter of students voted for this. I’ve made my point and he may well be terrified. While you cannot excuse his actions, you can certainly empathise with his despair at this digital archive of his transgressions available with a simple Google search of his name. Perhaps my response has been enough to make him stop his anti-social online behaviour. My original blog post on his dismissal remains live, so prospective employers are still on notice about him. Besides which, he himself might be vulnerable and further pressure might be detrimental to him. The research shows cyberbullies often have a mental illness, a personality disorder or engage during substance abuse. Worse still, it might prompt him to escalate the matter and perhaps retaliate by carrying out that threat or something worse.
  3. Blog about it. The remaining quarter of students thought this was the best course of action. It spreads the message to other potential bullies, educates the community about the problem, and it’s what I do best. It could be as little as writing a piece like this.

Of course, the other options are still available to me now I have posted this blog, and I can still proceed with pressing charges. I’d appreciate your advice if you’d care to comment below.

For information about cyberbullying go to cybersmart.gov.au or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Thanks to these tweeps for your supportive comments:

© Mark Pearson 2014

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

9 Comments

Filed under Media regulation, mental health, social media, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Diary of a cyberbullying victim

  1. Wow, I did not realise you had been through that. It shows how widespread and insidious cyber bullying is, when someone of your calibre is attacked like that. Having been a victim of cyber bullying myself, a few followers coming to my defence (including those with legal backgrounds) pretty much put a stop to it. I did remove the offensive comments and threats though, as some were also attacking my followers,. Of course, I have screensavers and copies of everything, just in case. It’s fair enough to advise ignoring them and I don’t mind them having a go at me, but leave my followers alone. (Also? Least offensive posts ever generally. Go figure)

  2. I wouldn’t have responded to him. Bullies are mostly bluff and back down quickly if they cop a legal notice or a visit from the police.

    It’s unlikely WordPress would have allowed that site, especially on its free platform, and if he’d taken it live, you could have had it removed on request. It would appear to be in violation of their terms of service. A complaint to the webhost can also work.

    As Claire above pointed out, you could report him to the police. Depending on the state, you could have him charged with stalking if he sends you more than two emails.

    The site and site name would have been defamatory, so a cease and desist notice to him should have done the trick, but you’d be paying a solicitor. Google will also remove search results on request, but it helps if you have a solicitor on board.

    A friend of mine in the web business (in Australia) was targeted by an ex employee in India with a slew of defamatory websites, which were pulled down quickly on request to web hosts and Google. The culprit has also been charged with attempted blackmail at least and faces a max 5 year jail sentence in India.

    As a side note, I’m an anti-cult activist accused of cyber-bullying for posting material on the group’s activities they don’t want the public to see. I blog on the free WordPress platform and have withstood a heap of false abuse and copyright infringement complaints. They have not attempted a defamation action because they’d lose. So the WordPress processes work very well IMO.

    • Thanks kindly Darkly Venus! Fascinating work you are doing, and sage advice. BTW, I was slated to speak to a conference on cyberbullying that group was holding a couple of years ago but withdrew when people alerted me to those allegations about them. Cheers, Mark.

      • Ha ha! Yes, I remember that. That’s how I found out about you and your work.

        The Cyberbullying conference was a great idea, and would have been super interesting with high caliber speakers. I asked them on Facebook why they hadn’t invited me to speak about my experience as an accused cyberbully – to give my side of the story – but they removed the comment, and never replied. 🙂

        The cult – a bit like your stalker – perceive they’re being bullied or persecuted when bloggers etc. are very much within their rights to report facts or comment on factual public behaviours or unlawful behaviours/convictions.

        As you point out in your book, what’s not okay is to write stuff that isn’t true.

  3. claire

    I believe this blog post/account is advanced as the basis of a police report, if you hear one more word, submit it to your local police station; repeat offending perpetrators at the serious end such as you have encountered need to be woken up. C

  4. I have seen the trolls and the cyber bullies in the days of AOL chat rooms in the late 1990s. The most effective action you can take against a cyber bully is to ignore him/her. They only make fools of themselves if they have no one to bother.

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