By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
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:
I 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.