The Moxie Sessions: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but what about tweets and posts?

Vaughn Davis

Every month, The Moxie Sessions bring together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see themoxiesessions.co.nz. This month, we returned to technology and innovation precinct Grid AKL to discuss the Harmful Digital Communications Bill and cyber-bullying in general. 

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill is currently awaiting its final reading in Parliament and will likely become law in the first half of 2015. In many ways, it leads the world on this front. Defining online harm, then backing it up not just with a judicial sledgehammer but also a more community-based complaints process through an “Approved Agency” means, theoretically, that people being dicks will be dealt with far more quickly and flexibly than with a courts-only system.

But will it work? And is online bullying really that much of an issue? And if it is, what other ways are there to deal with it?

To tackle these questions, as well as polish off the remainder of the 2014 Moxie Sessions snack supply before the chips went even further beyond their expiry date, a dozen or so business and Internet thought leaders gathered at Grid AKL recently.

Leading the discussion were internet lawyer and Netsafe Chair Rick Shera, life and business coach Bevan Chuang and, just for a change, goat farmer and ad agency magnate Vaughn Davis. 

While there’s no doubt that the Internet has led to more visible bullying, what’s not so clear is whether the overall amount of bullying in society has increased, or if it’s just moved to a more public place.

One indicator we do have numbers around, though, is suicide. And although suicide isn’t necessarily linked to bullying (although it has been in some high profile cases) a look at the stats is illuminating. 

New Zealand’s suicide numbers usually sit somewhere between 500 and 550 a year. Since the mid 1990s, the rate has actually decreased slightly.

Over that same period, we’ve seen the arrival and widespread uptake of both the Internet and social media. New Zealand Facebook users have gone from zero in 2004 to 2.5 million today – with no net effect on suicide.

What’s more useful than looking at social media as a cause or enabler of bullying, I reckon, is to see the opportunity it presents for identifying and understanding the behaviour, and protecting its victims.

The HDC Bill goes some way towards doing that. Bullying comments or behaviour that might previously have been difficult to capture or report are now increasingly happening online – making them easier to spot and call out.

While enforcement is one option, social pressure is another. 

As Bevan Chuang pointed out, for the person being bullied, simply removing yourself from the Internet often isn’t an option – “removing yourself from social media is like removing yourself from life.” And the same goes for the bullies. All social networks feature algorithms that can make a user’s content more or less visible to their friends and the world in general. Suppressing (if not outright deleting) a bully’s profile, posts and comments should be a powerful antidote to dick behaviour.

And this doesn’t even need to involve a regulator. Adding an “unlike” button (or similar) alongside the “like” button most networks feature means the community, not some central authority, could collectively suppress offensive content. (As I was writing this, Mark Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook had considered such a button, but it isn’t planning to introduce one anytime soon.)

Relying on the social networks themselves to remove hurtful comments doesn’t always cut it, says Bevan. While Twitter’s takedown process worked well for her on occasion, Facebook’s complaints team let what she considered racist and white supremacist comments stand. 

Which leaves us, for the moment, with the Harmful Digital Communications Bill. 

As world-leading legislation, the 1.0 version is never going to be perfect. Determining where complained-about behaviour sits on the continuum of nastiness, and therefore how to deal with it, will be a challenge. Everyday spats between two people who know each other, online continuation of school or workplace bullying and mass hatred towards someone the participants might not even know personally will all need to be treated appropriately.

Applicability of New Zealand law to activities that take place on almost exclusively offshore platforms will be another issue. But as Rick points out, simply making this law serves an important role. “This isn’t a silver bullet. One function of law is to say that this is what we believe as a society: this is what we consider to be wrong – even if we can’t always stop it.”

The current version of the Bill itself is here (as reported back from Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee):

The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.

Check out the standing invitation, the podcasts and the records of previous events at themoxiesessions.co.nz, and follow @moxiesessions on Twitter.

Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent for their generous sponsorship, which helps to make the Moxie Sessions possible.


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