Heather duPlessis-Allan raises an important question for the internet age in her column today. Is it really best to ignore online bullying or should children and teenagers be encouraged to stand up to it? It takes strength of character to do as one young woman did in the example she gives, and proudly post the sort of images of herself that tell the trolls she does not care what they think.
It is not as easy to do that in text. Unless their victim truly does not care what they think, trolls will quickly detect otherwise in the mere fact he or she has bothered to respond. What a pity an instrument as wondrous in its reach and potential for human engagement as the internet should breed such vitriol in some people.
It is a strange thing and it is by no means confined to young people. Some of the worst gratuitous cruelty online occurs among intelligent, highly literate and public spirited people with strong political ideals. Perhaps this is not surprising considering how nasty politics can be in any forum. But the offenders online are often not young. They are mature people who succumb to some sort of demon that infects them on social media.
Something in the medium makes them hot-headed. Maybe it is the thrill of seeing their words on a screen and the satisfaction of composing phrases than can work like a bludgeon or skewer an opposing argument in a way that might leave the opponent personally devastated. This is not how people reason with each other face to face or on a phone, or used to do so in writing when letters were exchanged.
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Perhaps it is the enforced brevity of Twitter that makes so many of its users brutally frank. Perhaps it is the sheer volume of traffic that causes them to give their message more impact. Perhaps it is the speed of transmission and the fact the receiver has an instant delete button that encourages the troll to send ill-considered sentiments.
But email and text messages are not ephemeral, as many abusers have found to their cost. They can travel far beyond their intended target and remain in the cloud forever. They can reappear in mainstream media where they lose whatever qualities of intelligence the troll thought they possessed.
The best antidote to these bullies may be genuine pity for their inability to deal with the demons of the medium. They would not say these things to your face and they lack the judgment or character to be civilised online. It may be satisfying to reply in kind but probably futile. The better response is silence. For they really are pitiable, undeserving of a dignified reply and their victims truly should not care.
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