Cyberbullying: the “what” and the “how” of it

As the age-old playground adage goes—”Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names may never hurt me.” This proverb (see: untruth) has never held any water, and the ridiculous sentiment that it peddles rings hollow in an era where words—both spoken and written—have the ability to cross countries, continents, and oceans in a matter of seconds. As many of you reading this can attest, childhood taunts and teasing have a sinister ability to leave the playground and follow us home… or into adulthood.

Technology has been both a blessing and a curse, providing us with an abundance of amenities (healthcare, entertainment, food production) while at the same time posing a significant risk (weapons, propaganda, inequality of access) to humanity at large. Modern technology is neutral by nature but can be used to help or to harm depending on the person, groups, or entities utilising said technology. The internet is no exception to this rule.

Bullying has been used as a form of coercion, manipulation, violence, intimidation, harassment and abuse since the dawn of humanity, evolving with the technology of the time. The printing press, telephones, radio communications and television media all have been—and in many instances are still being—employed as a means of bullying.

The internet follows its technological ancestors in a longstanding tradition of simultaneously uplifting and undermining humans. The wider web has miraculously bridged social, cultural, and geographic gaps, bringing diverse peoples together like never before.

However, the internet has been used for a multitude of sinister purposes as well. Cyberbullying, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries, is “The use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.” Historically, members of the LGBT community have been persecuted worldwide.

Despite drastic strides having been made on a legislative and cultural level, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies routinely find themselves faced with cyberbullying and harassment on the internet. This article hopes to help LGBTQ-members and their allies stay safe online.

LGBTQ Communities on the Internet

Cyberbullying is a malicious, malignant tumour on the face of modern society. From public web-forums to private correspondence, cyberbullying is a pervasive product of its environment—literally and metaphorically. According to an international 2018 Ipsos-study research published by Comparitech, cyberbullying is on the rise.

Between 2016-2018, over twenty-thousand interviews were conducted with participants aged 16-64 across 28 countries. With the exceptions of Russian and Japan, parents were likely to express that their children had been victims of cyberbullying. India, Belgium, the United States, and Brazil had some of the highest self-reported incidences of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is a global phenomenon that affects adults and adolescents alike. Similarly, adolescents and adults are also the perpetrators of cyberbullying. The effects of cyberbullying on its victims, regardless of the offender, are devastating.

With many teenagers and young adults regularly using handheld devices to access the internet, access to information is instantaneous. With more and more people using mobile devices to access the internet, websites and social media platforms have become meeting grounds for groups of people who otherwise would not have been able to meet and communicate as easily (or as freely, in some cases). This is especially true for members of the LGBTQ community.

Websites geared at different segments of the LGBTQ community provide a multitude of varying content—from political news to pop culture and entertainment. Some of these websites allow their visitors to communicate, either immediately or through the posting of comments. Users have the ability to use an identity—either real or created—to spread information and ideas. Whilst it may seem practical to use your actual identity when communicating online, exercising caution is recommended. Cybersecurity, along with cyberbullying, are major factors to consider when creating an online profile.

Dating apps, danger, and the rising call for safe spaces

In modern society, dating apps have become ubiquitous. Keeping pace with the smartphones and tablets that they’re hosted on, dating apps have provided their users with the seemingly limitless opportunities. Expanding the dating market for millions of people worldwide, dating apps have made meeting individuals and forming relationships much easier for groups that have been historically persecuted, such as LGBTQ persons. It should be noted that despite this fact, dating apps fall victim to the many issues that plague internet-based communication mediums: cybersecurity and cyberbullying, with the two usually being interconnected.

One of the most common breaches of cybersecurity is ‘catfishing’. A massive annoyance at best and a devastating attack at worst, catfishing is the use of another person’s likeness to create a false online persona with the explicit intent to mislead. Oxford English Dictionaries describes catfishing as the attempt to “lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.” The phrase was popularised in the mid-2000s with MTV’s hit series, Catfish—a television show that attempted to track down the individual who was ‘leading-on’ the person being catfished. While the show did shed light on the issue, it was criticised for making light of the threat and danger inherent of catfishing.

Recently, a New York man took gay hookup app Grindr to court over harassment that he suffered due to catfishing facilitated via the app. 32-year old Matthew Hendrick was routinely harassed, sometimes on a daily basis, between October 2016 and March 2017. Shortly after breaking up with his boyfriend, Henrik began to receive bizarre and threatening messages online—mostly through Grindr. The disgruntled ex-boyfriend began stalking Henrik. Making the situation even worse, the ex-boyfriend—known in court documents as J.C.—created fake profiles, pretending to be Henrik on Grindr.

Posing as Henrik, J.C. claimed that he was HIV positive, and used Grindr to solicit unsafe sex. Having knowledge of the victim, J.C. directed men—both individuals and groups—to show up at Henrik’s home and work addresses, providing those same men with said addresses. Henrik and his friends reported the harassment to police, but the police were unable to stop the abuse. Henrik (and his supporters) also submitted over 100 complaints to Grindr asking for J.C. to be blocked, but to no avail.

According to a write-up by Pink News—a news publication that primarily focuses on LGBTQ issues—stated that “In February 2017, a federal judge ruled that Grindr was not obliged to help Henrik under federal law. Unsatisfied with this response, Henrik is now awaiting a decision from the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.” (https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2019/01/11/grindr-men-lawsuit-matthew-herrick/). J.C. was arrested in October 2017 and charged with stalking, criminal impersonation, disobeying a court order, and filing a false police report.

Given Henrik’s horrifying ordeal, one would think that Grindr would have accepted responsibility for facilitating such atrocious acts. Sadly, Grindr and its ilk (Tinder, Bumble, Hornet, Hinge, Baddoo, et al) are corporate entities that place profit above the privacy and protection of their users—despite whatever catchy tagline they use to brand themselves.

It must also be stated that Henrik, despite having undergone such a traumatic experience, was fortunate enough to be an economically stable, young, conventionally handsome white male in a democratic Western country that recognises same-sex marriage and prosecutes hate speech. This cannot be said for many—perhaps even the majority—of LGBTQ individuals that use dating apps. Ethnic minorities face inter-community discrimination for their sexual orientations. Gay men are routinely arrested, attacked, and murdered in Arab, African, and Eastern European countries.

Teens and young adults from socio-economically deprived communities in wealthy Western democracies are still bullied, harassed, and face threats of physical violence. With this in mind, catfishing takes on a whole new, disturbing dimension that MTV’s series of the same name did little to explore or tackle. Multiple organisations and LGBTQ organisations have advocated for the creation of safe spaces online, but with the internet being known as ‘the new Wild West’, the best protection for LGBTQ individuals is knowing their rights, and what they can do to protect themselves online.

Online identities and protecting yours: safeguards against cyberbullying

When browsing online, individuals are likely to encounter speech and content that is upsetting, intimidating, or threatening. While this content can be reported to the host website, here are some general tips and reminders for being safe and staying smart online:

  • Try to use a pseudonym whenever possible, instead of your real name
  • Create an alternative email address to use when corresponding on blogs, dating apps, or news websites
  • Be wary of sending any personal information to online individuals whose identity you have not verified: these include phone numbers, addresses, email addresses, work locations, or the names of schools attended
  • Do not send sexually explicit photos, especially if you are easily identifiable. As a general rule of thumb: if you would not want your work colleagues (or your parents) to see it, DON’T SEND IT!
  • Engage with people respectfully: although facing differing opinions can be upsetting (especially when the other person does not appear to be communicating in a kind, respectful manner) it is easy to stoop to their level. By taking the high road, you help to limit any negative backlash and control the narrative through morality
  • When communication becomes threatening or harassing, REPORT IT! It does not matter if the web host seems uncaring or unsupportive. It is important to have recorded documentation of harassment or abuse suffered online.
  • Log-off: When the internet becomes too much to bear, turn the focus to offline pursuits. While it may be tempting to engage with trolls, bullies and harassers online, it is also possible to make a positive difference in your community by logging off, stepping outside, and getting involved with local organisations in your area.