How governments can mitigate the effects of antisocial online behaviour

How governments can mitigate the effects of antisocial online behaviour

Our mobile devices have made our lives handy.We can talk with loved ones overseas cheaply and in the comfort of our home (and pyjamas). We can order our groceries and pay the bills while simultaneously pouring over Instagram feeds filled with cats getting up to shenanigans. And contrary to popular belief, the internet isn’t just filled with cats. Social media networks have been powerful tools for amplifying movements, mobilising help in emergency situations, even in overthrowing governments.

In 2011, these networks were instrumental in the Arab Spring uprising, to the extent that parents in the region were naming their children Facebook. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, ‘the defining image (of the uprising) is this: a young woman or a young man with a smartphone. She's in the Medina in Tunis with a BlackBerry held aloft, taking a picture of a demonstration outside the prime minister's house.’

In these instances, technology was a device for positive change. But as we have seen throughout history, technology can produce both positive and negative effects. Increased connectivity and mobility mean that we can access pretty much anyone with a Twitter handle or Facebook account 24 hours a day. We can respond to urgent emails immediately, averting disaster. But there are severe negatives to this real-time responsiveness.

As Chief Constable Alex Marshall, the head of the College of Policing remarked to the BBC: ‘As people have moved their shopping online, they've also moved their insults, their abuse and their threats online, so I see that it won't be long before pretty much every investigation that the police conduct will have an online element to it.’

He commented that ‘the crimes arising from social media are presenting a real problem.’ He says, ‘that on an average day half the calls received will be someone complaining about online abuse received.’ Everything from Facebook defriending to more serious comments such as rape and death threats were being reported. Chief Constable Marshall’s observation highlights an important question for government agencies, law-makers and institutions, namely what part should governments play in combating malignant online behaviour?

Cyberbullying and the law

In Australia, antisocial online activity is covered by both state and federal laws. The NSW legislative inquiry into the bullying of children and young people, accords cyberbullying the following characteristics:

  • There is an intent to harm
  • The act is repetitive
  • There is a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim.

Cyberbullying differs from traditional forms of bullying, in that the victim often doesn’t know their attacker in person and also can’t get respite from the attacks when leaving the shared physical space.

The anonymity of the cyber attacks is one issue. The other issue is the variety and amount of incidences of bad behaviour. As Chief Constable Marshall alluded to above, because bad behaviour runs such a wide gamut, it is a particularly complex area to legislate, police and prosecute.

The ADFA Skype scandal 2013

The 2013 ADFA Skype scandal references one of the first incidences that was prosecuted under both ACT and Commonwealth law, highlighting the shortcomings of the legal approach. In this instance a male and female cadet engaged in consensual sexual activity. Unbeknownst to the victim, the offender set up a hidden webcam in his room which streamlined their engagement to a group of five of his friends. The victim was alerted to the taping when the offender mistakenly sent her a text stating ‘About to root a girl n [sic] have a webcam set up to the boys in another room.’

When queried about it, the offender denied sending the text. However, it wasn’t long until the news got out and the victim suffered significant abuse and censure as a result. She said to The 7:30 report.  

'I suffered victimisation and bastardisation. Everywhere I went, there seemed to be a new incident that would occur. It follows you everywhere you go. When I was living, I was living on base at Amberley and I couldn't leave my room except to go to work because the boys in the room across from me thought it was fun to terrorise me and call me the Skype slut continually every time I left my room. So, it takes its toll. You get to the point where you just want it to stop, you want everything - you do question whether or not you made the right decision... I've lost my career, my livelihood, my health, my education and I'm starting from ground zero again.'

This incident led two men being charged; the one who committed the act, and the one who set up the streaming.

The acting judge admitted that, ‘the offenders abused and degraded the complainant for their own perverse satisfaction’ but also took into account the young men’s references and academic achievements when sentencing, feeling anxious about whether prison was the appropriate course of action and ultimately sentenced them to a 12 month good behaviour bond, a decision that drew a lot of commentary. The sentencing exposed the difficulties legislative and judicial bodies have in dealing with forms of online abuse. The case also exposed a wider truth; that one of the keys to using technology in a constructive way is to be very aware of the culture you are creating.

Creating awareness

Government agencies have their work cut out for them. YouGov poll did a survey and discovered that nearly a third of those surveyed had participated in malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know. The reason for such a proliferation of antisocial activity is the aforementioned cloak of anonymity, but also perhaps a lack of awareness of both the severity of the act and also the affect those acts have on others.

The Australian Federal and State Governments have been proactive in releasing communications that help workplaces, schools and citizens create a safe internet space and also give them tools to deal with the adverse effects of online abuse. Some great resources include:

This site has a lot of great information for keeping children and women online safe. They include:

  • Stories from those who have dealt with a form of online abuse
  • Tips for those on blogging, gaming, dating and social networking sites
  • What to do if you think your child is being bullied
  • Where to get legal help and support if you’re being abused.

Legal Aid NSW

The Legal Aid site gives a very clear and practical rundown of what constitutes cyberbullying, what your rights are and how you can protect yourself from being attacked.

Australian Human Rights Commission

The Australian Human Right Commission outlines what to do if you, or someone you know is being harassed. It has links to relevant state and federal legislation, as well as an employer toolkit for educating staff.

Combating the negative effects of bullying

Over the last decade, technology has changed the way we communicate with each other. However, it’s crucial that we empower citizens to use technology in a safe, positive and kind way. The first step is awareness, but it’s also vital for government bodies to provide citizens with the means to seek recourse from their legislative bodies. Citizens need to know their responsibilities and where to turn for help if their life is turned upside down by malicious behaviour . If you would like to know more about how mobility is going to impact society, book your place at one of 10 specialist conferences at  CeBIT Australia 2017 today.