Syndicated Columnist for The Social Network
Association, Writer, Founder of The Anna Kavanaugh Charitable Foundation, Host of Mad Science: The Genetic Crossroad, CEO Living Eden Media, Cyber Victims Advocate
Browse “Anna Kavanaugh’s Syndicated Column – Cyber Abuse: The Virtual Violent Crime” below!
Column 11, May 5, 2014
It is an ugly truth. Our society victimizes its victims. To face that reality is a heavy cross to bear. That’s why we don’t.
This is the real world. We all know it can be rough. We are taught that to survive it, we just have to learn to take a punch and turn the other cheek more often than not. Sage advice but it neglects to acknowledge the certitude that there are only so many hits a person can take before they break. This is real life. And if you have been targeted by a cyber-abuser, you already know they will go to any length to end yours.
When revictimization is discussed, it is generally in reference to the recurrence of extreme personal violations seen in survivors of rape, sexual abuse and domestic assault cases. Those are the instances that get most talked about, as they should. Unfortunately, our social and judicial system is geared for the revictimization of victims in a myriad of other circumstances as well and, because it is, too many of them are falling through the cracks.
It happens with victims of voyeurism. Not only does a victim suffer the initial discovery and resulting trauma in realizing their most intimate moments have been videotaped or recorded, they are made to suffer it multiple times. The police become involved and countless officers watch the evidence, as do the victim’s attorney and legal team. The details of that evidence are spelled out in court documents, and then the victim must recount it as it is replayed again at trial, only this time, they must do so in the company of the offender who grievously violated them. Similarly, this is also what rape victims must endure. These are just two extreme examples to demonstrate the ongoing trauma and psychological damage that our system, by its very nature, imposes on victims seeking justice, remedy, and relief for the illegal offenses committed against them.
The virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse is about dehumanization. Cyber-abusers aim to kill. They do this by exploiting social media platforms to relentlessly assault the self-esteem and dignity of their victim, and by launching deliberate “kill campaigns” designed to assassinate the reputation, career, livelihood, relationships, and overall life of their target. It is not a singular event and allows abusers to reign over their victims in the public domain for years. The residual effects of such a campaign also creates ongoing trauma and damage as the planted false realities and blatant lies about a victim can be indefinitely preserved on the internet and available for perpetual access and propagation.
Revictimization is a common and key contributing factor to the long term suffering of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often diagnosed in victims. There are many avenues in which this occurs, beginning with the public longevity and sustaining presence of a “kill campaign” and the intentional falsehoods on which it is founded. Victims also suffer from the inaction or silent condoning of bystanders who are too afraid to speak out for what is right when they can clearly see what is wrong, or worse yet, refuse to acknowledge they see anything at all. This is another form of dehumanization serving to condition a victim to believe that in the face of gross injustice and violation, they do not matter, nobody will help them, and they are worthless in the eyes of others.
When a victim of cyber-abuse reaches out for professional help, they are often revictimized again. Law enforcement may not be in a position to intervene due to the lack of physical threat or the needed state legislation allowing them to act. A victim then retains an attorney to pursue litigation only to find the costs are so prohibitive they cannot proceed unless they are willing to mortgage their home, empty out their savings, or sell their possessions… all of which place a further burden and hardship upon them. A victim may also need ongoing psychological counseling to help them deal with suicidal thoughts or clinical depression as they try to reclaim their lives by learning to cope with the indefinite perpetuation of the damages they have sustained.
This all revictimizes the victim and creates a cruel and vicious cycle of emotional trauma sustained.
Victims of cyber-abuse do not want sympathy. They are not looking for attention. Nobody would want the type of focus that a “kill campaign” thrusts upon them. All a victim wants is to return to a state of living their life without the illegal psychological terrorism, harassing interference, false realities and blatant lies, all wielded by pathologically driven cyber-abusers who feed on destroying or humiliating others as much, and as publicly, as possible.
Sadly, once much of the damage is done, there is no repair.
It is imperative for our federal and state legislators to pass consistent laws that better enable enforcement agencies to respond promptly to cyber-abuse cases. The revictimization of cyber-abuse victims by a systematic failure of our social and judicial system only compounds, and effectively assists, the criminal intentions of online abusers in the achievement of their ultimate goal, and makes suicide look to victims like the only available option they have for escaping their tormentors.
The virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse is real. It is rampant. It is relentless. Our system in dealing with crime, particularly new forms of crime, is broken. When the very legal system put in place to protect our citizens finds itself in the position of helping criminals fulfill the harm they intend to inflict, something is catastrophically wrong.
This is real life. And too many victims of cyber-abuse are losing theirs. It is long overdue for us to do something about that. We cannot change yesterday. We can change tomorrow… and as they say, it’s better late than never.
Column 10, April 28, 2014
If you are in the business of information, you had better get it right.
Search engines. We use them every day. Google, Bing, Dogpile, Yahoo, and all the others, give us immediate access to infinite amounts of organized data that we can use to learn something we did not know, keep up with world events, connect and communicate with others, or simply feed the insatiable and voyeuristic curiosities so many people somehow find time to indulge themselves in. The immense index that serves as the roadmap for our individual online experience in navigating the World Wide Web is now such a seamless part of daily life that most of us would feel lost or anxious without it. By way of gradual conditioning, the subconscious notion has been ingrained in us that tangible resources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other general reference materials, have become less reliable and far more cumbersome sources of information. That is both a sad and incredibly frightening reality.
We tend to believe, without question, that search engines are the most authoritative voice we should turn to when seeking knowledge. However, as with all things dominative, there is an inherent danger that has emerged in tandem with such online search prevalency. Trusting search engines with implicit faith is a risky venture when it comes to placing our reliance on, or building our convictions upon, the results returned or suggested to us. Even when there is little hazard to the individual conducting a specific search, the online exchange between user and search engine response can simultaneously create enormous damage to the subject source, when that source is another individual. The issue here is the deliberate exploitation of the public domain leading to search engines readily returning gross inaccuracies, maliciously planted false realities, and downright blatant lies, in their results… or worse yet, offering them up as “auto-suggestions” for unsuspecting users not even looking for them but then who internalize assumptions based on what they have been provided. This is a common and easily available weapon of virtual warfare exploited by cyber-abusers. They count on search engines to help carry out the mass propagation of defamation and abuse campaigns, to assassinate the reputation and credibility of their target, and to ultimately maximize the trauma, public humiliation, and the long term sustaining of damages deliberately inflicted on their victim.
As we ask the same question to social media providers, such as Facebook and Twitter, who allow their platforms to be exploited and used in the virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse, we must also ask why search engines, such as Google and Bing, are allowing their indexes to propagate, perpetuate, and essentially assist cyber-abusers in the execution of victim “kill” campaigns. Google has already been successfully sued over its auto-complete results returning defamatory and unsubstantiated terms such as “fraud” or other libelous descriptors linked to an individual. Even still, they have made no changes to their search system that would rectify and limit damages to victims of cyber-abuse. This means that victims must file a lawsuit to have the terms removed. For most, the legal costs involved are far too prohibitive to pursue litigation, subsequent justice, and relief. The perpetual presence of blatantly defamatory terms in the auto-suggestions of search engines plays a significant role in the trauma inflicted on targets of malicious cyber-abuse campaigns, and is also an undeniable contributing factor in the resulting suicides fulfilled by victims.
People are heavily influenced, if not driven by, subconscious perception and societal programming. The motivational influences of our impression formation and the characteristic “pack” or “herd” mentality exhibited in human beings have been studied. We are intrinsically geared to identify the leader we are to follow. When in doubt as to who that may be, where we are to go, or what we are to do, we just follow everyone else. In the world of online information, the leadership role translates to the specific search engine providing data results, perceived to be from an authoritative voice. When Google or Bing arbitrarily present auto-suggestions to users, which may not have even been part of the original search query, they do so with dangerous implications. Users subliminally interpret those suggestions as sound and trustworthy guidance where in effect the search engine is saying, “this is most relevant to the individual you are searching,” or “this is what you need to know above all else,” or “this must be what you are looking for.” Search companies want to return accurate results based on complex algorithms consisting of stats on collective input behaviors. But when cyber-abusers and their malicious “kill” campaigns exploit such framework services in the public domain by deliberately planting false realities, blatant lies, and unsubstantiated claims into the vast expanse of the internet, those results can create catastrophic consequences that propagate and perpetuate ongoing damage indefinitely in the lives of online victims. This is too easy and convenient a method for virtual vandals to plant the proliferation of malevolent gossip about the targets they wish to destroy.
If the owners of these companies, or someone they loved, were to type in their name expecting to see results directing others to their work, accomplishments, and activities, but were instead to find only humiliating inferences, defamatory terms, blatant lies, or false claims, associated with their names, those results would be promptly removed. Similarly, as we have seen in precedent setting court cases, if an online victim of cyber-abuse has the financial means to sustain the staggering legal expense of litigation, they will likely win a judgment forcing search engines to disassociate the reputation destroying terms that have been linked to their names based on input search popularity.
What happens to a victim not personally favored by the operators of these search engines? What happens to a victim who cannot bear the often prohibitive legal costs of litigation? They suffer. They continue to sustain damages. They are effectively stripped of their identity, credibility, reputation, and equal opportunities. That’s what happens. They suffer until they either find a way to live with the injustice of the maliciously contrived public shame inflicted upon them or until they can no longer live with the ongoing trauma of that injustice and fulfill suicide to bring an end to their emotional agony.
Search engines want to own and organize information. If you are in the business of marketing information and presenting yourself to be an authoritative source in providing it, you have a basic responsibility to the public. Presenting arbitrary auto-suggestions that directly link private citizens to defamatory and unsubstantiated claims is nothing short of reckless. When we are talking about people’s personal lives, relationships, reputations, careers, and livelihoods, there must be a fundamental degree of common sense and good judgment applied to any online service, whether it be social media sites or search engines. If you can’t get it right, at least don’t get it so wrong.
Something is badly broken when the lives of cyber-abuse victims depend on preferential justice, remedy, or relief. But then, no court mandate could ever repair all the damage done to a victim. Such is the way of malevolent gossip and those cruel enough to seed it. I am reminded of an exceptionally potent scene from the film, “Doubt,” starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman and the venerable Meryl Streep. The script is a superb and intentionally unresolved examination of the ruinous and unrestrained nature behind the proliferative spreading of unsubstantiated claims.
In the film, Hoffman portrays a Catholic priest, Father Flynn, who is scrutinized by school principal, Sister Aloysius, played by Streep. Hoffman delivers the following sermon:
“A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing.
‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’
‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have borne false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’
So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness.
‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’
So, the woman went home. She took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says.
‘And what were the results?’
‘Feathers,’ she said.
‘Feathers?’ he repeated.
‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’
‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’
‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’
Column 9, April 21, 2014
Whatever happened to the good old days?
It used to be when we were upset, rejected, blinded by jealousy, had a grievance with someone, held a negative judgment of another, or were just plain done wrong; we aired those sour, unhappy or jilted feelings by complaining to our circle of family and friends. Sure, we could do a bit of damage to the villainous object of our detestation by poisoning the well with our self-serving emotional crusade in desperate search of garnering the sympathy and validation that in theory would somehow make us feel better. No matter how potent, persuasive, and vindictive our histrionic outbursts were, the depth of damage we could create for others was confined by limited reach to an audience that likely was not all that interested, and always counterbalanced by “the other side of the story.” We did not contact someone’s place of work attempting to get them fired by wheedling their boss with personal tales of our distress. We did not publish our version of dirty laundry in the newspaper, on billboards, or flyers left on random car windshields. We did not write to clubs, organizations, restaurants, churches, and gas stations urging them to refuse entry or service to a patron. We did not exploit the world available to us with the intent to destroy every aspect of someone’s reputation, livelihood, and life. Do these things sound absurd? Of course they do. That is why we did not do them.
We just cried, complained and groused about our feelings to the people who were part of, and among the closest, in our lives… those obligated, if not compelled to, commiserate with us. We did this until our emotions began to calm along with our need to vent them. That was what we did. That was what we were supposed to do. That is what we should still be doing today.
Oh yes, those were the good old days. But then, the internet happened.
Imagine this for a moment. You spend years working hard, making sacrifices, paying your dues, and saving your pennies. You finally have enough in the piggy bank to buy your own home, with or without the help and accompanying interest rate of a supporting mortgage. You finally move into your new several-hundred-thousand dollar personal space, and then spend thousands more on remodeling, decorating, or landscaping the private oasis that you and your family will call home for years to come.
Suddenly, a vandal is on the loose. Perhaps your business has a disgruntled customer or client. Perhaps someone saw you run a four-way stop at the end of the street by a school bus crossing. Perhaps you betrayed a friend, made some off color remarks in the grocery store, had a fling with your neighbor, ended a relationship, broke someone’s heart, stole cable television service for your spare bedroom, didn’t pay your taxes, or maybe you’re just not everyone’s cup of tea. So, whoever in the universe you have allegedly offended approaches your house. It’s not difficult. It is located on the street where anyone can pull up in front of your door and have easy access. They saw down your trees, rip out your lawn and other landscaping, tear off your roof shingles, and sledgehammer your chimney. They smash your fine china and crystal ware, flush your valuable jewelry down the toilet, and then torch the drapes in your living room. From the curb, they watch in vengeful delight as your home, and everything in it, goes up in flames. The home you earned through hard work and sacrifice burns to the ground, until only ashes remain.
This is, among other things, criminal vandalization. If you are a smart homeowner, then you would at least have insurance to recover your losses, repair the destruction to your life, and rebuild. Though there are some damages that not even the best of policies can mend.
Fortunately, in the physical realm of our society this does not happen. We have grievances with others all the time. People hurt, offend, disrespect and violate us in any number of ways. And if the wrong is so severe that we cannot simply let it go, we have a legal system put in place that allows us to file suit against those we believe have somehow wronged or damaged us. It is this fair method of conflict resolution that we as a society know to be the appropriate and accepted process for remedy, should such measures be necessary. We have no legal right, no matter how angry or hurt we may be, to help ourselves to any kind of self-defined vigilante justice by bringing destructive harm to another in the form of self-justified revenge.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the online world and the virtual society we have created. There are no life insurance policies available for its users to buy. While many of us simply transfer the social standards and legal practices of the physical realm to our internet experience, cyber-abusers and exploiters do not. Their inability to do so is a common element in the pathology that drives their behavior.
A cyber-abuser sees nothing wrong, strange, or unusual, about inflating a set of emotionalized and self-serving circumstances that are personal, private, and pertain only to them and those involved with them, by publicizing those circumstances on a universal scale in the public domain of the internet. This taps into a part of their pathological belief that convinces them their sentiments on an issue must be heard because they are deserving of worldwide attention and are of global importance. They perceive themselves to be anointed “truth” tellers and view their actions and behavior as righteous, when in reality their actions and behavior are vindictive and their personal conflicts, envies, jealousies, or relationships are relevant to a finite sphere of significance in their physical lives.
This is how and why cyber-abusers intentionally exploit the internet to cause severe harm and damage to others. From the start, their aim is to destroy. Much like the exaggerated home scenario I used before, they deliberately set out to vandalize a person’s life, reputation and livelihood simply because they can and have easy access to do so. The internet provides them the limitless audience they crave, with the potential to create the most severe and long lasting damage to their victim, and the vigilante reign to exact their desired revenge.
In our hybrid society of today, balancing our professional and personal lives between our physical and virtual realms, many of us conduct business, interact with potential customers or clients, or manage our reputations, interests, and skills on the internet. With no restrictions in place to govern our virtual society it is easily exploited by those seeking to self-serve. As a result, relationships, careers, and even entire lives can be ruined, or severely crippled, within hours.
The internet should not be used as a weapon of manipulation and tool of psychological terrorism in which to hurt, harm, or humiliate others. For all the brilliance we have created, and the internet is certainly among the most jaw dropping with the most potential for good, we have effectively invented a quick and easy way to allow online vandals to burn down homes, investments… lives.
And the other shoe drops. This is where we must decide what our virtual society will be and if we will continue to allow cyber-abusers who aim to kill, in any way they can, to vandalize the lives of others.
Have you ever upset anyone? Have you ever broken a promise? Have you ever ended a relationship badly, hurt another person, made a mistake, told a lie, cheated, provided poor service, snapped at a customer, said a bad word, didn’t pay someone back the money they loaned you, stole fruit off of your neighbor’s apple tree, or sneezed on someone’s sandwich and served it anyway? Have you ever done anything wrong or had any bad thoughts run through your mind? Ever? Of course you have.
Should we burn your house down? Should we try to damage your reputation and career hoping we can thwart your income and deny you a living? Though you live in Florida should we make sure everyone in California knows that we think you are a loathsome person?
Of course not.
Twitter is not a courtroom. What cyber-abusers need to be taught with swift justice and exposure is that they are not the judge. And that whatever vigilante sentence they believe themselves righteous and important enough to hand down by using the global stage of the internet… that sentence will be overturned.
Column 8, April 14, 2014
“Just get over it,” they say.
“Grow some thicker skin, you big baby” they taunt.
“Enough with your drama,” they sneer.
These are just a few of the dismissive remarks used by cyber-abusers to further degrade their victims. They use childish statements such as these as tools of manipulation in their mental warfare, to make a victim feel trivialized and ultimately silenced. Victims who try to resist or speak out against the abuse inflicted upon them can commonly expect to hear these juvenile barbs in response. This is only a predictable posturing measure dually deployed for both deflection and minimization. However, in the mind of a cyber-abuser, there is a pathological justification trigger that gives creed to the words they say. They cannot comprehend the severe ramifications of their brutal abuse or the repugnance of the defamation campaigns and false realities they create to deliberately destroy their target prey. Nor do they understand the calamitous aftermath their victims are left debilitated by in the physical realm. Only if a cyber-abuser were to experience the trauma, injustice, damage, and personal violation of a public assassination campaign, would they understand that “letting it go,” does not apply. A victim cannot simply “move on,” from a cyber-abuse campaign. This is because, in the public domain, a smear campaign can propagate indefinitely, making the resulting damages to a victim’s life a perpetual crisis from which they feel there is no escape and no recovery. And that is precisely why we see so many of them turn to suicide seeking desperate relief from the ongoing trauma they sustain.
Cyber-abusers are essentially a virus, or perhaps an even more accurate way to describe them would be to compare them to weeds. A weed is an aggressive, invasive, valueless presence in the garden that bullies itself into position, steals vital nutrients from other plants they aim to weaken, and oppresses them through gradual suffocation in the grasp of its proliferative tentacles. This is not unlike the pathology and patterns of behavior we see exhibited in cyber-abusers time and time again. Much like a weed, they assert their inflated sense of supremacy over others though they are no more entitled, endowed or enlightened to do so. They are not special, they are not omnipotent, they do not possess higher wisdom nor are they somehow ordained with a stamp of righteousness and superior judgment. They are just another plant. One that desires to be acclaimed for being better than others, one that wants to be more than they know they are and can ever be, and one that is willing to slaughter another without remorse to secure the self-image and approval they have defined for themselves. Put simply, and it is really nothing new, the more they devalue another the more value they see in themselves. That is not only a pathetic existence those prone to commit cyber-abuse must live with inside themselves, it is also very sad. The more they dehumanize and destroy others, the more unattainable what they hope to achieve becomes. Unfortunately, this fact does little to help a victim caught in the wicked snare of a cyber-abuse campaign. There are no pesticides to eradicate a cyber-abuser or prevent the deliberate demolition of their victim’s life. As of now, there is no caring and concerned cyber-gardener whose mission is to protect their tender crop, though that certainly is the role social networks and site operators should recognize as being a responsibility that in large part falls to them.
If you are a victim of cyber-abuse, there are no easy answers… no easy avenues for finding relief. This I know all too well. I have been where you are, and in some ways I still am. I want to impress upon you how important it is to accept and trust the loving support of your friends and family, even if it feels they cannot fully understand what you are going through or the profound depth of your pain. I urge you to arm yourself with information, to understand the pathology of who your abuser is, and to reach out to others who are enduring, or have endured and survived the soul-destroying agony of a cyber-abuse campaign. You are not alone though I know it feels like it.
No one has the right to abuse the internet to abuse you. No one has the right to rewrite who you are. I want you to remember that you matter though they want you to believe you do not. Know that you are not what they say or try to make others believe you are, and that your life belongs to you, not to them. If you find yourself at the end of that dark alleyway looking suicide square in the face, stop and contemplate the reality of what you feel driven to do. If you fulfill suicide, they defeat you. You surrender your God-given life, and your right to live it, to them. They do not deserve to be rewarded for the barbaric abuse they have so relentlessly and criminally assaulted you with. Your death will not be a punishment to them, only a win. It will not be a grand statement they will feel guilt-stricken over for the rest of their lives. They do not possess the capability or basic human decency to feel that kind of empathy, and they will only deflect any responsibility for the permanent decision you make.
As victims of cyber-abuse, we can learn from the silent wisdom of the plants in the garden. We must stand our ground, dig the roots of who we are firmly into the soil, go about our own business, and recognize the weeds for the petty thugs they are. And we must always reach for the sun. There will be a gardener who will accept the challenge and take on the responsibility they should. It may be Twitter. It may be Facebook. It may be due to legislative regulation imposed upon them. But one day, help will come and the weeds will be plucked at the root from the gardens they invade and tossed aside where they belong. It is only a matter of time. We just have to hold on until then. And as long as we do… then there is always tomorrow. There is always hope. Even when it feels like there isn’t.
And next time, when your cyber-abuser mocks your suffering or demeans your pain and trauma with trivializing statements such as, “Move on,” or “Let it go,” just remember that is exactly what they want you to do. They want you to quietly accept the false reality they have created and sink into its despair. Never let go of who you are. Never let go of your life. Stand for the life that is yours, and do not ever allow them to rob you of it.
How do I know the builders and architects of our virtual world will eventually step up and take responsibility for the damage they are allowing their users to inflict on others? How do I know the social media networks will take effective measures to prevent cyber-abusers from continuing to exploit these platforms by using them as weapons to kill? How do I know that effective legislation will come to pass, enabling law enforcement to provide more immediate relief and recourse to online victims?
Because they have to: because too many men, women, and children have died in the fulfilling of victim suicide as a result of the virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse. Because too many will continue to die until we arrive at change.
And because what good is a garden if it only grows weeds?
Column 7, April 7, 2014
Most of us do not want to see it. Who would? Most of us do not want to call it out for what it really is. Why would we? Once we do, we then become socially accountable and can no longer enjoy the luxury of turning a blind eye to the suffering of others without betraying our conscience and disregarding our moral compass. That can be an overwhelming and helpless feeling, and a heavy cross to bear. It is much easier to pretend it’s not really there or that we are none the wiser to it. Still, once seen, it cannot be unseen. It is there, waiting conspicuously in the middle of the room to see if and when we will do something about it. Will we?
Cyber-slaughter. And yes, it is just as bloody a business as it sounds. Victims of all ages and both genders continue to die at an alarming and increasing rate. When we contemplate the number of attempted and fulfilled suicides that can be confirmed as consequential tragedies resulting from the virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse, and then add to that number even a reserved projection of all those we cannot confirm but can reasonably conclude are happening, the reality is staggering. That’s a lot of blood on the hands. But, whose hands?
If we are to manifest change in legislation, law enforcement, legal precedent, and operating standards of online accountability and social decency in the virtual realm, we must first define the conversation that will lead us there. There is much confusion in understanding how to distinguish one set of victim circumstances from another. Every cyber-abuse case can be measured on a continuum. They all begin somewhere, meander into the middle, and then ultimately reach an inevitable finality. Each instance differs in degree and has its own anatomy of factors that will determine how far to either end of the spectrum it will go, and whether it may result in suicide or recovery. The constant is the distinct and predictable pattern seen in abuser initiation and escalation, in contrast to the unpredictable responses and level of psychological trauma seen in either victim resistance or submission.
When we talk about virtual violent crime, it is important to understand how it is distinguished as such, and how it varies from other forms of online cruelty. Among the most commonly used terms to describe various virtual offenses are cyber-bullying and trolling. Both of these can result in extreme damage to both the life and psychological well-being of a victim. Cyber-bullying is often still thought of as an issue affecting children and adolescents whereby “bullies” bombard their victim with a cruel but reckless infliction of public humiliation and severe emotional distress. Trolling, on the other hand, is a non-specific and non-personal form of abuse that is more about the interaction between the trolls themselves than it is about their victims. It is an odious version of competitive gaming and an almost ritualistic popularity contest in which those who behave the most offensively are awarded the highest honors in status and earn virtual “street cred” among their peers. Most trolls have no particular interest in, or real hostility toward, the victims they use.
The virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse or “kill campaign” is something different altogether. Cyber-abuse is an umbrella term describing the pathology of abusers and the calculated methods and manipulations they use to carry out a malicious campaign aimed at a specifically targeted individual. A campaign is devised to hurt, harm, humiliate, and destroy that individual in every way possible. The intention is to kill a victim, leading to either a figurative or literal result. To do this, abusers will arm their assault with every tactic they can contrive. Their arsenal often includes illegality and their most commonly deployed weapons are privacy invasion, data theft, harassment, cyber-stalking, threats, intimidation, psychological terrorism, public humiliation, social engineering, mobbing, the planting of false realities and blatant lies on various websites, social networks and in search engine results, and going to extreme lengths to pry into the personal life of an individual in search of anything they can manipulate, warp out of context, or interpret as a possible blemish to then cause further harm, humiliation or damage to their victim by exploiting it. A cyber-abuse campaign is a twisted, delusional and illegal process of deliberate demolition wherein an online abuser makes nefarious use of the public reach and exposure of the internet to dismantle another human being. Abusers derive gleeful pleasure and experience a drug-like high as they feed their demented need to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering on their target prey.
Once you look past the barbaric cruelty, dirty tricks and predictable cloak and daggers an abuser will use to serve their motivations, cyber-slaughter is not particularly complex and is easy to detect. For the most part, it all looks fairly similar to what you might expect to see in a brutal assault carried out in the physical realm. First, a cyber-abuser will stalk their prey to size them up and plan their attack. When they are ready, they will hit their victim with a cowardly sucker punch out of left field. This is how they strike first, and they do so with such intentional force their victim sustains immediate and debilitating wounds. The victim is then hemorrhaging in a state of shock where they are unable to react or defend themselves as they are rendered defenselessly incapacitated. The assault continues as the cyber-abuser pummels their victim with relentless poundings. They do this so the victim cannot catch their breath, get their bearings, stand, or even pull themselves to their knees.
But as it is human nature, a victim will likely at some stage begin to rise after a certain amount of time has passed and the shock has subsided. Life does have to go on, even when under attack. This is when the abuser will batter their victim with shattering emotional blows in desperation to knock them face down and flat once again. Should the victim continue to rise, the abuser becomes angry and their frustration evident. They then up the ante and escalate from general assault and ridicule by posturing a position of intimidation, threat, and omnipotent control by publicizing a victim’s personal information, stolen data, or exploiting what they perceive to be potential insecurities about them. This process plays out until the victim has somehow managed to either overcome the trauma and emotional debilitation to reclaim their life, or they succumb to the excruciating and soul-destroying damage inflicted upon them to the point they seek desperate relief from the unbearable pain in the fulfillment of suicide.
Yes, cyber-slaughter is a bloody business and with a staggering number of victim suicides, that’s a lot of blood on the hands. But again, whose hands?
Is it on the cyber-abusers who devise vicious campaigns of deliberate demolition and aim to kill? Yes.
Is it on the law enforcement agencies and legislators who fail to protect victims? Yes.
Is it on the architects and builders of the virtual online world and its websites, forums and social media networks, who pass the buck by blaming third party content while enabling abusers to hide behind claims of free speech as they administer the most vitriolic abuse? And who allow their platforms to be exploited and used as weapons to kill? Yes.
Is it on the bystanders whose silence empowers cyber-abusers by conveying approval that condones their behavior? Yes.
Is it on the search engines, like Google and Bing, who allow the names of victims to appear in auto-suggest menus with unsubstantiated defamatory terms that propagate as abusers continue to type them in or click on them to maintain their presence? Yes. Imagine if you no longer existed in the public domain for who you really are and what you really do, and were replaced with a false reality of someone you are not and things you did not do. Imagine typing your name into a search engine and nothing indicating your business, hard work, organizations, clubs, accomplishments, etc., appears in the auto-suggestions. Instead, your name appears only with reputation tarnishing and life destroying terms such as “pedophile,” “rapist,” “child molester,” “schizophrenic,” “imposter,” “scammer,” “fraud,” “prison,” “criminal,” “kidnapper,” and so forth.
Any of these things are enough to make a victim want to die, and too often, they do.
So to all those responsible, whoever they may be, hear this. When they lower the latest victim of cyber-slaughter into the cold, dark ground, the rest of us will know it was you who put them there. And no matter how deep you bury your hands in your cold, dark pockets, we will still see the blood that stains them. If you cannot face the families and friends of the victims left destroyed, then wash your hands by taking personal, legal, or corporate accountability, and from this moment forward keep them clean. Do what you can, whoever you are and whatever your position, to bring this virtual violent crime to an end. Help ensure that nobody else is ever hurt or humiliated so badly in the public domain they are driven to die. And if you still don’t know what to do, let me simply ask you this…
What if it were you? What if it were someone you love?
No one has the right to abuse the internet to abuse you. No one has the right to rewrite who you are. Cyber-abuse kills. Doing the right thing is not a choice. It is a responsibility.
Heal, do not harm. And be kind online.
Column 6, March 31, 2014
“It’s you. Not me.”
This is just one of the psychological manipulations that cyber-abusers use to posture control over their victims. But, they’re wrong.
A study of the mentality and inner mechanisms that lie beneath the manifestations of the deviant and criminally minded behaviors executed by a cyber-abuser can be an intimidating and downright frightening experience. That is, until we begin to recognize the pathological commonality seen in all cyber-abusers that really makes these individuals seem rather ordinary. There is nothing unique about any of them and their predictability can be easily measured. They employ the same tactics and display the same triggered responses seen in their tell-tale escalation of abuse, and their deflective reaction to being exposed for that abuse. Once this is understood they become much less scary, which often allows victims to maintain a higher level of emotional strength for a longer period of time. But tragically, for many victims of cyber-abuse, this understanding does not come before they have fulfilled suicide as a means to escape the trauma they have endured. The relentless abuse and resulting damages sustained by a victim will eventually begin to erode their sense of spirit and scar them with profound wounds to their soul. By the time a victim seeks the desperate relief of physical death, they have already died. The act of suicide becomes only a means to an end of their ongoing pain and suffering.
Cyber-abuse is a cruel act of dehumanization. This is a commonly seen trait among online abusers but is not a conscious process, rather an instinctual one. It is an inherent part of abuser pathology. The dehumanization of a victim allows an abuser to cast aside all human decency, morals, and compassion, and entitles them to simply ignore all governing laws. They strip a victim of individuality and identity; thereby justifying what is heinous and illegal behavior. By denying a victim to hold any level of human quality, abusers can then effectively manipulate a set of conditions in which to steal and bring a figurative end to the life of their target prey. It is the pinnacle we see among cyber-abusers of both cowardice and insecurity, ironically masked by an arrogantly self-inflated sense of power and influence. Cyberspace becomes their own personal domain where in their warped perception they can rule omnipotent and go unchallenged in whatever behavior they display. In their minds, they truly believe they deserve to abuse, humiliate, violate, defame, and assault the human dignity of their victims.
Cyber-abuse is selfish at its motivated core. Once abusers excuse themselves from behaving within the socially accepted norm, they are then enabled to equivalently commit virtual theft, assault, rape and murder without contemplation or remorse. In this vigilante or blood sport world they create, they derive an incredible amount of addictive pleasure from the pain and damage they inflict on their victim. The more they hurt, the more they want to hurt. The more they damage, the more they need to damage. This is what makes them so very dangerous and willing to go to any lengths to fulfill their purpose or feed their motivations. A dehumanized victim of cyber-abuse is in grave danger psychologically and physically, because to an abuser, their victim is an expendable life. It is only a game piece with which to play and to feed the frenzy of their pathological need to destroy by causing as much pain as possible.
Similar to dehumanizing their victim, cyber-abusers separate themselves from their own identity through in a process known as deindividuation. This is another tool used to deflect from personal responsibility and accountability for their inhuman online behavior. It is an anti-social and anti-normative function. In psychological terms, it is theorized that in the process of deindividuation, abusers experience a detachment from the inner compass that guides and dictates what is and is not acceptable behavior in society. Once detached, an abuser is then uninhibited and free in their vitriolic abuse without restraint. To justify this internally, abusers merely detach from the responsibility of their actions by subconsciously convincing themselves they are not responsible for them. As if they are having an out of body experience. This is also prevalent in mobbing mentality where we see abusers become part of a virtual vigilante or assault group. Deindividuation allows them to better fit in with the group and participate in collective behaviors. This contributes to their false sense of anonymity and a diffused responsibility in which they believe they cannot be singled out or blamed for their actions.
In daily life, we all hold our own sense of identity. That identity is confirmed and reinforced by those around us, such as family, friends, employers or colleagues. We are acutely aware of how we are relating to other people, because the potential consequences to us if we behave badly keep us operating within the boundaries of the accepted set of standards enforced by the non-vocalized rules of social communication and interaction. This explains how cyber-abusers can be so barbaric and brutal online, even to the point of goading someone into fulfilling suicide, yet can be law abiding and seemingly decent people to interact with in the physical realm.
The effects of cyber-abuse are violent and they are real. They bridge the gap between the virtual world and the physical realm. Cyber-abusers exploit various social network services by using these online platforms as a virtual game board or battleground. Here, they lose their sense of reality. They dehumanize and deindividuize their victim. They do this to justify using the lives of others as game pieces in what is a twisted virtual video game of sorts, where the aim is to kill and points are collected in the deliberate demolition of their prey.
So you see…. it’s not you. It really is them.
But sadly, the ramifications to the victim of this virtual game manifest themselves in the real world. And it doesn’t get more real than being so emotionally hurt and psychologically traumatized that fulfilling suicide becomes the only way to end the game.
Cyber-abuse kills. Game over.
Column 5, January 28, 2014
I still remember that first day. It was the mid-90s and the afternoon had come for the installation of my own personal home computer. I laugh as I recall my excitement, wonder, awe, and undeniable intimidation of this heavy cream-colored block of technology that was the most awkward monstrosity in comparison to computers today. At the time, it was a cutting edge, top of the line PC, and as one of the first in my circle of young friends to own one, I sure felt like some kind of newly appointed royalty, or at least the cat’s pajamas. It was such an innocent time and I feel a bit sad knowing the naiveté of it all is now lost to nostalgia. I will always have my memories; when Alta Vista was the King of Search Engines, when type-chatting in real-time with someone in Australia felt like harnessing the great powers of the universe, when the buzzing and beeping of a dial-up connection was an anticipatory delight, and the words, “You’ve Got Mail,” sent shockwaves of joy straight through me.
Yes, this internet thing was marvelous and I owned it! Nobody taught me how to use it. Nobody warned me about what could happen to me if I did. In between the chat rooms, email, online- games played live with others, and the wealth of information available to me at my fingertips, I had no idea the internet could destroy lives. None of us did. All of us old enough to witness the virtual birth of what would become a new and simultaneous civilization to the physical one we knew were tossed into the growing pains of something we could not fully comprehend, had no set of rules or guidebook for using, and could not have been expected to possess the foresight to predict what would come. That was then. This is now.
Thank goodness for our elders. Tragic accidents do happen, but it is fair to say that most of us never set ourselves on fire to find out flames would burn or drank poisonous cleaning chemicals to discover we would die from ingestion. We have an ingrained knowledge that certain sounds are soothing and ring of love, while others are harsh and uncomfortable even if we do not understand why. It is part of the same internal program that directs us to keep our mouths closed and our elbows off the dining room table when eating, clothe ourselves in the morning rather than running around naked, brush our teeth to prevent them falling out, and to know that committing acts of unruly behavior, theft and violence is wrong. We do not question these things nor do we require evidence of them. We were not born with this knowledge. It is a subconscious part of who we are because our parents began teaching us these things, and so much more, from the moment we entered this world.
In the mid-90s, a new virtual world was born; one destined to intermingle and interact with our daily physical lives. A world we, and all those who come after us, must navigate responsibly to ensure our safety, and the safety of others. We all possess a degree of common sense and have been rudimentarily warned through the years that to best protect ourselves we should never give online strangers our name, address, or other identifying details. But that is about where the advice, primarily geared toward keeping our children safe from pedophiles and young women safe from potential rapists, ends. Who is advising us about cyber-abuse; the kind of abuse that takes place every relentless day across the vast expanse of cyberspace and over any number of online networks? Who is teaching us how to keep our lives from being destroyed by online criminals who steal from us, release our private information, or plant blatant lies and false realities about us in the permanency of the public domain all in a malicious assault to tarnish our reputations so badly our personal and professional lives may never recover? Who is protecting and healing us from the extreme brutality and severe trauma inflicted on us by vicious and dangerous cyber-abusers running free throughout the halls of cyberspace every day, armed and aimed to kill? Who is teaching us how to save our lives, and the lives of others, from the fulfillment of suicide; like the online victims desperate to find relief from the emotional and mental pain, but cannot find recourse or means to escape those who relentlessly torment them? Who is teaching us not to be so cutting and heinously cruel to others online that it drives them to want to die? Who is explaining to us why cyber-abusers are allowed to commit virtual violent crimes under the mask of anonymity and the lack of accountability that comes with it? Nobody.
Like all pioneers, there is no one ahead of us to show the way. Nobody was there at the dawn of this new technological era to pass down their wisdom from hard lessons learned or to warn us of the turbulent waters we would sail through while learning what the internet was really all about, and how many of us would not survive the trip. We’re it. And because we’re it we have a great responsibility to those who are born today with a pacifier in one hand and an iPod in the other. We have learned enough and cannot deny it any longer. It is time to make our wisdom an intrinsic part of our children. Any parent hopes to make the world a better place so our children and their children will be better for it. We can all still learn, even now, and we must. We can create a safer online environment. We can learn to be more aware of our behavior and the damage it can cause others, we can learn to understand how little difference there really is between the physical and virtual worlds we live in today, and we can see to it that our lawmakers pass better legislation to enable law enforcement to provide faster and more effective recourse to online victims. But for all the things we can still learn, it will never come with the benefit of intrinsic wisdom, like that we can give our children. Without intrinsic wisdom, our knowledge is much more likely to be jaded, manipulated by own motivations, and questioned.
It is too late to begin imparting intrinsic wisdom into the programming of our pre-teens and teenagers about online safety and the fundamental basis for decency and kindness when traversing the virtual world. They are an unfortunate casualty rolled into the rapid growth of this medium and often, poor parental guidance and/or example. Can we expect young people to behave any differently than the adult behavior they so often witness on the internet? If you are a parent it is crucial to show your children that you are decisively opposed to, and categorically revolted by, cyber-aggression and cyber-assault of any kind. If you are a parent engaging in cyber-abuse and allowing your children, who are also your online peers, to witness your participation in the public maligning, humiliation, violation of basic rights, rape of dignity, and the vicious propagation of gossip and blatant lies about others, what are they learning? Cruelty. Who are they learning it from? You. Is that the future you want for them? Teach them to be better than you and better yourself in the process. And remember this: your children may not grow up to be like you. Instead of a cyber-abuser, they may one day find themselves the cyber-abused and contemplating suicide as their only means to escape their deep emotional wounds and profound trauma. It can happen to anyone, at any time, and for any reason. Your children will not be immune and the example you set for them now will determine how well they may deal with it in the future should they, or those they will love, ever become a target.
We must begin to instill intrinsic wisdom in our children. We must realize that even infants are beginning to interact with the online world in some way and that many toddlers are utilizing mobile devices on their own today. The internet and its technology are, and will continue to be, an inseparable element to the world for children born today. If we do not program and equip our children with the behavioral code of conduct they will need to avoid online hazards for themselves and others, we are remiss in our duty as both internet pioneers and as parents. Imagine if our parents had never taught us that fire would burn, chemicals could kill, and chewing with our mouths open is just plain rude.
As we teach our very small children to play with their siblings, share their toys, to look both ways before crossing the street, not to hit or hurt their playmates, and to obey the authority of their elders, we must teach them that people are indeed “real” inside cyberspace – and that they can be hurt. They must grow up to understand that virtual violent actions are crimes and have consequences that can sometimes kill. We tell our children that if they cannot say anything nice, they should say nothing at all. It is imperative we extend these teachings to the internet where for some people it is so easy to say whatever they want, regardless of the pain or damage it may cause others.
Teach your children well. Help ensure for them a safer, kinder, and more responsible future in the online world. A world they will spend even more time participating in than we already do.
Column 4, January 20, 2014
“If you build it, they will come.” And so they have. In all online interactions, more time is spent on social media sites than any other. Statistics reveal an extreme acceleration of growth in usage that is demonstrated by the 88 billion minutes logged in 2011 to an even more astonishing 121 billion just one year later. This has translated into the pursuit and achievement of enormous profits for sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among several others, who make their money supplying interactive platforms for their online users. The architecture of cyberspace is a digital masterpiece. The networked systems intertwined in this virtual civilization comprise an information super-highway that is nothing less than a true marvel of technology. Sadly, in the complex blueprints and building of this vast and profitable online world, something fundamental has gone overlooked. And as a result, the creation of this marvel has come at a high price for a staggering number of users who have been left stranded in the darkest corners of the public domain.
To build comes with great responsibility. In the physical realm, we have learned this truth throughout history and, often, at painful consequence. These lessons learned provided us with invaluable hindsight that gave birth to the concept of “safety first” and led to the establishment of an enforceable set of standards governing all we aspire to build. Without this collection of laws, regulations, and ordinances put in place for the protection of people, the world we live in today would be fraught with danger and our lives impaired by hazardous conditions at every turn. Routinely, we would all witness tragedy. Homes would burn, buildings would collapse, airplanes would crash, bridges would fail, and restaurant patrons and hotel guests would become ill or injured. And so on. Fortunately, health and safety codes, while sometimes violated, keep those tragedies at a minimum. These requirements strictly mandate those who either engineer or functionally operate our society to keep us safe, as reasonably possible, by adhering to specific standards of precaution and protection. Why then is the same not true for the builders of our simultaneous virtual world? Considering the staggering number of suicides, and other tangible and traumatic damages that online victims are sustaining as a result of cyber-abuse, how can our lawmakers neglect to impose a similarly suitable set of safety regulations on our digital engineers? And how can so many of the builders of these online environments, playing host to such destructive abuse, deny any responsibility and disassociate themselves from all accountability?
Social media is the most interactive medium existing in the world today; having exploded in both usage and popularity from when first introduced in the virtual realm. The internet has given us ease of access to information but the social network system has redefined the means and manner in which we interact with one another. In these various networks and communities, we can now express ourselves creatively, share ideas, develop or maintain relationships, find emotional, educational, medical, or technical support, and even play virtual versions of our favorite board games with others – and we can do so anonymously. Unfortunately, as it stands now, embedded within the fiber of social media itself, are the ideal conditions to create an open channel for pathological deviancies to weaponize. And this is how, at the fingertips of cyber-abusers, these deviances become devices of mass destruction aimed at the victims they choose to target. This is not news to the companies at the helm of these profitable platforms. They cannot deny their awareness of what is going on and how their networks are so often being used. By allowing the abuse and exploitation of the social networks they have built, companies are, in effect, allowing the abuse and exploitation of their users. They are placing a higher value on the ability of cyber-abusers to freely harm others than on the protection of the victims whose lives are devastated as a result. Human decency, moral and ethical code, and basic common sense should be core values built into the operational policies, procedures, and practices of all domains on the internet, but most certainly all social networks providing interactivity with other users or the ability to leave public comments. Neglecting to provide victims an immediate form of intervention and relief by promptly addressing and removing all defamatory, abusive, harassing, and clearly malicious content posted by third-party visitors, these companies are condoning, and even encouraging, the continuance of what is indeed a virtual violent crime. A crime that destroys lives, and in a growing number of instances, ends them.
Common sense alone should dictate the appropriate addressing of cyber-abuse. If exercised, such an extreme double standard would not exist between the physical and virtual realms we simultaneously navigate in our daily experience. If a man were to stand up in a movie theater and begin screaming insults and obscenities at someone he takes issue with for some reason, the theater staff would demand he stop immediately, not to mention many other upset movie-goers witnessing his behavior while having their evenings interrupted. If the man did not cease his behavior, the staff would remove him from the premises or call the authorities who would do so, regardless of how justified the man felt in inflicting his abuse. If a woman in a grocery store began harassing another shopper and pressed the intercom to broadcast unsubstantiated and defamatory claims about that person to the rest of store, she would be asked to leave her cart full of groceries and exit the premises immediately. If she refused to leave, the authorities would be called to escort her out of the building. These are two exaggerated examples that may, on some level, seem ridiculous. They would seem that way only because the social norms and accepted standards of our physical society generally prevent these situations from becoming commonplace realities. However, in very sharp contrast, we see these realities playing out daily in the public domain of the internet.
If our legal system, and accepted social standards, do not permit violence, assault, abuse, harassment, slander and/or the defamation of others designed to maliciously destroy a person’s reputation, career, relationships, dignity, and life as a whole, how then can the architects and operators of the internet allow these crimes to proliferate so rampantly over their websites, search engines, and social media networks? Shouldn’t the builders of the internet, and various hosts of its social media sites, have a fundamental obligation to protect visitors from third-party abusers? Shouldn’t they refuse to allow visitors to arbitrarily and anonymously post vicious and destructive comments or private data about others online? Shouldn’t they be accountable for providing an open channel for cyber-abusers to intentionally plant false realities, blatant lies, harass, threaten and relentlessly humiliate their victims, often driving them to consider or fulfill suicide? Shouldn’t they prevent these individuals from deliberately exploiting their platforms to propagate vitriolic virtual violent crimes to a potential audience of millions? Those are the questions. Ones we need to be asking. And more importantly, answering.
Cyber-abusers are solely responsible and accountable for the cruel and heinous devastation they purposely inflict on the lives of their targets. The architects and operators of cyberspace, and the social network systems within it, certainly cannot be blamed for the specific actions of these online criminals. However, just because they cannot be blamed for the abuse itself, does not remove them from the responsibility of hosting the poorly regulated services it plays out on. And it does not excuse them from neglecting to exercise basic common sense or moral decency in devising their practices, policies and procedures for dealing with the heinous and pandemic crime of cyber-abuse. If it would not be accepted in the physical world, they have an obligation to ensure it is not accepted in the virtual one. Crime is crime. Cruel is cruel. That is true whether it be online or off. So how could either of these go ignored; or worse yet, accepted?
It is time for the architects and operators of cyberspace, and hosts of all the social network platforms it is largely comprised of, to sit down in their boardrooms and ask the toughest questions of all. How many lives have already been destroyed by what we have built? And what are we going to do about it? As online victim suicide rates continue to rise, doing nothing can no longer be an option.
Column 3, January 13, 2014
Religion, righteousness, and freedom of speech are unquestionably three of the most misconstrued and misused principles throughout history. But until recently, there has never been a time when this reality rang more true. The advent of the internet has provided the perfect breeding ground for behavioral hypocrisy, the justification of heresy, and the undermining of basic human decency by virtue of morality.
Cyberspace offers its users the unrestrained and anonymous opportunity to express opinions, create and disseminate false statements or damaging innuendos about others, and vent vitriolic abuse aimed at a specific individual or the world at large. Unlike any other time in history, information planted in the vast public domain of the internet can travel around the world in a matter of minutes, reaching an audience of multi-millions. And it does not end there. Information posted to various websites or preserved on social media venues self-propagates as new users happen upon it or are directed to it by various search engines indiscriminately presenting suggested search results and links to this material indexed from their web crawls. Yes, the internet is the water cooler of the modern era; the rumor mill of the ages.
It is true the internet provides amazing potential for the building of relationships, sharing of knowledge and communications, and the immediate interplay of ideas between people around the world that would otherwise be impossible. It gives a platform for voices to be heard in expressions of free speech. Unfortunately, it is also a place where the legal foundations of free speech, the moral and ethical standards of righteousness, and the most fundamental concepts of most religious doctrines, have been redefined.
While it may be at the core of our democracy, and contrary to what many believe, freedom of speech is not an absolute. It is often used as a manipulative tool of justification for vulgar, abusive, and utterly inhuman behavior. Freedom of speech does not grant anyone the freedom to abuse another person. Unsubstantiated and unproven statements, misleading innuendos, and false claims disseminated with the intention to assassinate the character and injure the reputation of another person are not protected under freedom of speech. This is true for the individuals who publish such statements and also those who regurgitate them.
Religion is another common veil of justification used by cyber-abusers. Some of the most vicious and profoundly cruel online abuse is perpetrated by those using their own spiritual beliefs as weapons of destruction. Nothing like religious idealism can conjure so much sadistic maltreatment of others. Some of the worst mob-like abuse derives from such groups as they band together to commence and partake in the virtual public stoning of those they victimize. The great hypocrisy is that the religious teachings these individuals hide behind do not endorse cruelty, malice, violence, humiliation, and hatred toward others. Cyber-abusers who fall in this category convince themselves, beyond all reason, evidence, and rationale, that their target, again – most often someone they have never met or spoken to, is wicked and deserves the punishment of God and the condemnation of His faithful followers; quite a different picture than a benevolent worshipper attending a Sunday service.
The sense of righteousness seen in cyber-abusers is similar to a religious veil of justification and is often displayed in their conduct, revealing an overinflated sense of importance and global influence. This leads them to believe in an illusion of possessing special insight, intelligence, power, and privilege. These individuals play judge and jury in the online world while operating under the misguided notion they can somehow shape reality, rewrite history, and alter the life experience of others as they see fit. Both obnoxious and immature behaviors are very often noted as classic traits of this self-righteousness syndrome. By purporting themselves as morally superior they often mask their own severe insecurities and fear of inferiority. We’ve all seen it before; those who run others down to try and raise themselves up. This type of behavior is rampant in the public domain and these individuals are extremely effective and dangerous in the damages they inflict on others without remorse of conscience.
Cruelty is never righteous, nor does it uphold or honor any religious doctrine. Cruelty is ugly. And it is wrong. Online abuse is not freedom of speech, nor is it noble or noteworthy. Online abuse is weak. And it is cowardly.
More study is needed to fully understand and categorize the pathology of cyber-abusive individuals; those who abuse the internet to abuse others using multiple cruel methods and terroristic tactics to do so. How do these individuals become convinced they hold the legal, moral, and spiritual license to publically persecute others, most often, those they have never even met? Why do cyber-abusers believe they have the authority to publically shame, harass, accuse, and so badly emotionally wound and traumatize others that suicide becomes the perceived best option for victims to find relief? And who has stamped the approval allowing these online criminals to violate basic rights of privacy, to publish and exploit private data, to disseminate defamatory content and to invent false realities about others to suit their own motivations with deliberately malicious intent to destroy their targets? The answers are far simpler than the questions themselves. Cyber-abusers hold no license, possess no authority, and have been given no approval to justify their actions. They have appointed themselves to these self-serving omnipotent positions of power. But that does not mean we have escaped all responsibility for the nefariousness of their actions. We have condoned this pernicious culture by allowing it to develop in cyberspace. Until we decide this is not the society we will accept for our evolving virtual world, now fused so seamlessly with our physical realm, the pandemic of cyber-abuse we now face will continue to expand. More people will die as they are driven to suicide in their desperation for relief and eventually we will begin to see the degeneration of our society as the lines between what is acceptable behavior online and offline become all the more blurred. If we are apathetic and disregard the sounding alarms urging us to effectively address this crisis, who really can we blame?
The internet is a chaotic world that is inadequately regulated. By its very nature, it does not discourage reprehensible behaviors and the resulting damage inflicted so recklessly on others, but instead works to promote and encourage it. And that is what makes this still relatively new technological wonder a wild wilderness full of danger, fear, pain and death.
We can make this wilderness a much safer place to be. We just have to want to more than we need to.
Column 2, January 6, 2014
The internet has become ground zero to some of the most vicious and profoundly cruel abuse afflicting our society today. It is a gateway for what we are only beginning to understand as virtual violent crime. As victim suicides continue to rise at staggering rates, it is imperative for us to change the dialogue regarding cyber-abuse. Contrary to the comforting advice passed down to children for generations, the online world has dramatically changed its meaning. The more accurate reality of today is this: sticks and stones may break bones, but words can really kill. And they are killing every day.
Bullying. It has been an unfortunate but commonly understood word in the history of our vocabulary. In many ways its meaning has now outgrown the word and today it is a misunderstood and inaccurate descriptor that has created a dangerous climate for victims struggling to survive without falling through the cracks. The term bullying is still widely viewed, interpreted and responded to as a child’s issue. An issue that on one hand receives broad sympathy and concern while on the other is seen as a natural and unavoidable part of growing up. It is still commonly believed that being the victim of bullying builds character and strength and that those victims should simply ignore, toughen up to, and endure its traumatic effects. This generalized response to victims, particularly those who are late adolescents and adults, presents a serious set of ramifications that leave them feeling isolated, embarrassed, minimized, invisible, ashamed, and often contemplating suicide as their only escape from the pain. The term bullying is not a one-size-fits-all word and bullying itself has changed. With the expanse of the internet, bullying has evolved into something much more menacing, sophisticated and perilous than our society has ever seen before. And the increasing number of victim suicides around the world is sounding alarms that we are indeed dealing with a new form of violent crime. One we cannot begin to effectively address until we begin to talk about it for what it really is.
The World Wide Web: A vast digital and invisible network wrapping the globe 24 hours a day. With billions of users accessing and viewing its contents, cyberspace has become the platform of our existence. It is a virtual civilization on which we have become dependent. We work, bank, shop, have relationships, educate and entertain ourselves all within this network, yet the online world operates without policing or any kind of meaningful protection. The virtual reach of the internet can turn hostile and invade our personal space to damage our physical lives outside of the computer. And danger does lurk in cyberspace, very often from people we would never suspect to be capable of the destructive behaviors they display online. These individuals disconnect from reality, all sense of right and wrong, good and evil, legal or illegal, and reveal their criminally minded nature in their actions. From behind their computer screens they will disseminate false information with deliberate intent to tarnish the reputation and damage the livelihood of their target, with no remorse for doing so. They feel safe in the perceived anonymity of the internet as they dehumanize, terrorize, and mercilessly assault others to feed their own motivations.
There is a pandemic disease rampant in cyberspace; one where those who become infected with manifestations of deep seated hatred, inner unresolved rage and a propensity for profound cruelty, feel entitled and empowered to perform heinous human crimes. Online, the crimes these perpetrators cannot act out in their physical realms are unleashed behind the cloak of their screens and keystrokes.
Cyber-abusers can be found in all walks of life, backgrounds and age groups, with late adolescents and adults being among the most savage and inhumane due to their level of sophistication in understanding how to cause catastrophic harm in the lives of others. We may know these individuals in our day to day lives, never suspecting their capability of carrying out unthinkable brutality in their actions towards others online. Cyber-abusers are highly skilled at manipulating reality, public perception and employing various tactical terroristic schemes. They exploit social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and use them as a public stage to maximize victim humiliation and carry out their hate crimes. These online networks enable abusers to propagate false realities, and engage in psychological terror tactics, threats and intimidation to execute the damage they inflict on their victims. With a wide variety of mobile devices and app programs available to online users, it is easier than ever for these individuals to have constant access to the controls of abuse. There is little difference seen between adult cyber-abusers and adolescents. The primary difference being that adults revert to adolescent behavior in which the full impact or consequences are not recognized. Adults are also more devious and cunning in plotting how to do the most harm to their victim’s life as a whole. What is the responsibility of the companies behind the social networks that built the platforms which are now exploited to host these crimes? That is a serious question we need to ask, and one we desperately need to answer.
Cyber-Abuse can happen to anyone. Children, teenagers and adults can all be ensnared by the nefarious actions of online individuals aiming to destroy their targeted prey. These individuals view the lives of others as mere game pieces with which to play and do so with great delight. Both adults and children suffer catastrophic and often permanent emotional damage that can drive them to suicide. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common diagnosis among victims of this type of crime. Emotional pain knows no age limit, and cyber-abusers are masters at extinguishing their victim’s sense of self-worth, love, hope, optimism, future outlook, identity, and joy of living life. For victims of cyber-abuse, no matter how strong their network of support there is often no stopping the erosion of their human spirit and self-esteem as they are relentlessly battered in the public domain before what is perceived as a worldwide and perpetual audience of millions. For too many victims, suicide is the only way to find relief from the constant public onslaught they are forced to endure. Society misunderstands the reach of cyber-abuse. Turning off the computer or blocking offending individuals is not a remedy. What is posted online propagates throughout a 24 hour virtual civilization and causes continual damage to a victim’s reputation, livelihood, relationships, and more. Unlike physical abuse, there is no relief from the virtual abuser. Victims are unable to retreat into a safe place to find the relief they need. The severe harm caused to a victim’s life takes on a life of its own in the perpetuity of cyberspace that feels inescapable. The damages a victim suffers are extreme and can also extend to their family and friends.
The effects of cyber abuse are violent and real. If the severe, debilitating trauma and emotional wounds inflicted on victims of cyber-abuse would bleed like gunshot or stabbing wounds, we would all understand that cyber-abuse is a violent crime, and cyber-abusers are criminally intent on murder. Those who are victimized experience the same emotional trauma as if they were physically assaulted, whether it is by a mugging, battering, rape, or attempted murder. Cyber abusers aim to kill. This may not be a conscious thought, but it is what drives them. They are incapable of discerning real life from virtual life and the consequence of a potential victim suicide is stimulating to an abuser, not a deterrent. It feeds their inflated sense of omnipotence and power. To them, life and death is only a game in which they cannot stop until they have obliterated their target for the “win.” In the physical world, a violating crime committed against us generally comes and goes in a single traumatic event, leaving us with the emotional brokenness to then recover from. Cyber-abuse is perpetual rape of our most basic human rights, spirit and soul. Victims are violated indefinitely on every level. There is no potential for healing and recovery from the severe trauma and damages a victim will sustain, as it is repetitive assault against their emotional and psychological selves. Again, it is crucial we understand that cyber-abusers aim to kill whether it is a conscious or unconscious thought, or a figurative or literal result. Cyber-abuse is a virtual violent crime. And until we begin to understand this, we cannot effectively save lives.
We must change our dialogue to ensure we are having the right conversation; the only conversation that will bring us to a safer, kinder, and more responsible online environment where people never suffer so much pain, trauma and humiliation that they are driven to die as a means to escape it.
Column 1, December 30, 2013
Recently, I enjoyed another of my routine marathon movie weekends, but this time with a twist. I found time to reflect on the profundity of the films I was revisiting, rather than skimming along the surface of the stories now naturally diluted in my familiarity with the scripts, actors and cinematic spectacles that films such as, “Braveheart,” “Troy,” “Gladiator,” and “The Passion of the Christ,” have given us. While these films may have been an unlikely catalyst, I suddenly found myself considering the pandemic of cyber-abuse through a lens I had not looked through before. The questions that have arisen for me are not ones I really want to ask, mostly because I fear the answers, but I more fear the consequences of failing to search for them. And so ask the questions, I will.
The Dark Ages, a period of time spanning some of the most extreme brutality in human history. What a barbaric bunch we were. What red stained soil we rose from. Times that, to declare ourselves righteous, saw savage crusades casting darkness over the lands in the name of God. Times that, for sport and entertainment, saw man pit against beast or fellow man until the prize of death determined the victor. And the crowds went wild. The more brutal the fight, the more we salivated. The more blood that spilled, the more we cheered. That was life. That was who we were. Thank goodness times have changed. Or have they?
We live in a culture of fear. Perhaps it is fear that keeps us in check, for the most part. In our daily lives we interact with one another in the physical world with a common understanding of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, legal and illegal. Our lives are governed by a social norm and code of behavior monitored by the power of law enforcement we instinctively dread dealing with. We understand that when someone angers us at work, in a restaurant, or in a grocery store, it will not be socially or legally approved to launch a physical attack against that individual. If someone cuts us off in traffic, steps in front of us in line, or calls us names, we are not entitled to physically act against them. Our emotions may rage when we feel wronged but fear of being ostracized by our peers, or socially rejected and punished by law, prevents the majority of us from acting on those emotions. We simply find another way to deal with them. Our physical world demands that. Unfortunately, there is another world we must navigate simultaneously.
The internet. What began seemingly harmless enough has evolved into a fully functioning civilization, separate and yet co-existent with our offline civilization. It is still our own society comprising the virtual pulse of this new cyberworld, yet so many netizens become unrecognizable to their physical world norms in their capability to administer extreme cruelty from behind their computer screens. How quickly so many of us abandon our civility and embrace barbarism. Is this an inevitable human regression that occurs when we are thrust into an anonymous environment with no police presence or mechanism in place to hold us accountable for our actions, or is slipping back into brutality merely the human equivalent of a comfortable old shoe?
As our civilization has evolved, there has been a gradual shift in the paradigms of social behavior, human interaction, and the laws that govern them. This has allowed for a consideration of basic human rights and a higher value to be placed on human life and the preservation of it. We now live in a modern society that rejects those who commit acts of violence and will punish the heinous crime of murder most harshly. Yes, we have come a long way and pat ourselves on the back for our moral and ethical advancements. We boast our humane enlightenment and take pride, and even credit for, the undeniable traits that make us a remarkable species. Traits of benevolence and compassion we can now express as part of an evolved society sharing the human experience. Still, I find myself searching for a way to reconcile this image of the great humanity we have defined for ourselves, with the daily evidence of its actions. Are we really enlightened or are we still living in the dark? Have we truly evolved, or have we only restrained the most ghastly elements of our nature? How do we explain away the undeniable human capacity to maliciously hurt others with deliberate intent to destroy their lives and livelihood? To humiliate and demoralize others as publicly as possible: to perpetrate, condone, celebrate, and derive great pleasure from the crushing cruelty so many of us gleefully inflict on our fellow human beings?
Imposed civility and the function of fear seem to keep our physical society in order. Online, that is not the case. We are all only a click away from being marked as a target and finding ourselves thrown into a merciless abyss of personal vigilantism, misguided vengeance, self-righteous witch hunts and the need to feed on the hurt and public humiliation of others. In our virtual civilization there are no consistent laws or immediate recourse alternatives to provide victims relief from the deplorable conduct of those who abuse the internet to abuse others. This allows the worst of human nature to then manifest in frightening, dangerous and deadly ways. Online abusers relish their perceived anonymity and use it as a cloak to mask their cruel and illegal behavior. This is emboldened by an omnipotent sense of power and false sense of security in believing they are entirely immune to detection, scrutiny, judgment or ramifications. From behind the veil of their computer screens and insidious fingertips, these individuals reveal a shocking capability to inflict ruthless abuse on others and operate in the cyberworld with free reign. This alone makes the internet the most dangerous environment we have ever created, and with that should come great responsibility in how we allow it to evolve. Because the internet is an ideal conduit for these aberrant behaviors, they are rampant. A cyber-abuse campaign can lead to very real consequences that reach into the physical reality of a victim, resulting in devastating destruction.
The internet has given rise to a dangerous set of conditions that stimulate the primitive nature in certain individuals prone to violent tendencies and inner aggression. Cyber-abuse is a game to the abuser. The goal of a game is to win. For a cyber-abuser, the win is the ultimate destruction of their target, even if that results in driving their victim to death by suicide. This is a consequence an online abuser cannot comprehend because they lose the ability in their game-play to distinguish between right and wrong, humane and inhumane. They are masters of dehumanization and disconnect from any form of moral compass. No one has the right to abuse the internet to abuse you. No one has the right to rewrite who you are. And no one has the right to cause someone so much pain and public humiliation that they are driven to die just to escape the trauma. Cyber-abuse kills. And it will keep killing until we no longer allow it to.
Will 2014 be the year our lawmakers pass consistent and effective legislation to address this pandemic? Probably not. Will 2014 be the year we all stand up as an online community and say, “enough”? Probably not. The sad truth is that many more will die before we finally understand that far too many people are dying because the internet is being used to kill. So maybe for now, the best we can hope for is that we will begin to ask these questions of ourselves and others as we enter a new year.
Maybe we could all remind ourselves when online that none of us are immune from becoming the target of a cyber-abuse campaign. And that when one of us falls, so do we all.
Whatever the answers, this much I know: humanity has many redeeming qualities, but none more important than our ability to make the choice to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. Barbaric tendencies may be at the root of our human nature, but because we can choose, we do not have to give them life in our actions.
Be kind online.