UTM hosts talk on cyber bullying and online violence

Steph Guthrie Annie Theriault
Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - 5:10pm
Blake Eligh

Noted Canadian feminists Anne Thériault and Steph Guthrie recently visited U of T Mississauga to talk about online violence and cyber bullying for the monthly Feminist Lunch Hour. As high-profile feminist and technology experts, Guthrie and Thériault say they have come to expect online vitriol directed at them, however anyone can be the target of a digital assault. The talk was moderated by women and gender studies professor Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani who says she often counsels students who have been witness to, or the target of, online harassment.

“The Internet is a place where you can discover people who share your interests,” Guthrie says, “but it can also be a place where users can be vulnerable to attacks.”

“To call it bullying infantilizes the issue,” says Guthrie. She groups all of the unsavoury behaviour under “online violence” that can take many forms, including a sexist comment passed off as a joke, sexually explicit comments, embarrassing photos and even blatant threats of violence directed toward the target or the target’s friends and family.

“These attacks are meant to marginalize and silence people,” Guthrie says, adding that gender and sexuality are frequent targets for abuse.

“It’s a form of terrorism,” agrees Thériault. “When we laugh at a message, or don’t call it out, we are complicit. But it’s not just a joke. People are telling you what they really think, and who they really are.”

Unlike a face-to-face interaction, social media allows instigators to distance themselves from the consequences of their online actions. Social networks also make it easy to facilitate large-scale attacks. Anonymity is another factor that allows online violence to persist, although Thériault notes that many online attackers are willing to post abusive information under their real names.

These acts “take a toll on the human psyche, and takes away the ability to freely speak online,” Guthrie says. Fear, anxiety and depression can be the real-life effects of online attacks. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s not real. Online can become offline very quickly,” she says.

But how can we protect ourselves? Staying off the Internet isn’t a reasonable solution, Guthrie says. “If we ignore the trolls and let them say what they want, they are the only voices out there,” says Thériault.

Guthrie and Thériault recommend bystander intervention and peer-to-peer consequences to combat online violence. Guthrie encourages those witnessing online violence, on a Facebook page for instance, to challenge the attitudes of the offensive poster—to speak up opposing the original message or to support the target. “People can get a false impression that their views are popular if we don’t speak up,” she says. Guthrie says publicly speaking up can encourage others to challenge violence, too. “There are people who are watching—you can show them how they can intervene.”

Thériault also recommends sending a private message to the poster outlining why you took issue with what they posted. “This has the most potential to transform,” she says.

“We have changed our attitudes about domestic and workplace violence. We can change our perceptions of online violence, too,” Guthrie says.

Don’t meet violence or aggression with the same behaviour, Guthrie cautions. It may put the target at additional risk, and it won’t solve the problem. Support the target of the attack by following their lead, she says. Check in through private messages to see what might be useful. “Don’t do it to be a hero, do it to be a good human.”

“The university has a number of resources on campus to assist with questions about harassment and to help prevent and respond to harassment that one may experience personally, or may witness,” says Nythalah Baker, UTM’s equity and diversity officer. “There are confidential and positive spaces where students, staff and faculty can find information and confidential advice.”

The U of T Enough site deals specifically with online harassment, with links to the university’s policies on online harassment, as well as information about who to call if threats are received and resources for reporting online violence.

Other supports include:

Good2Talk  1-866-925-5454 (a 24-hour confidential mental health support line)

Sexual Harassment ‎Office

Community Safety Office‎ 

Campus Police

Equity & Diversity Office