Over the past few years, I have noticed some trends with social media and their impact in the sport of agility, including its impact on the attitudes and psychological well-being of members of the sport and organizations. I’d like to discuss these trends because I need to highlight a critical lesson for all: with social media comes social responsibility, regardless of age, gender, identity, title, or role in organizations.
Again, a quick review of my background and expertise in this field. I have been involved in computer-mediated communities since mid-80s when my dad hosted a Bulletin Board System (BBS were part of the history of the internet as we know it today). After my double major PhD in Management Information Systems and Organizational Behavior, I co-chaired an international conference session on social media and the impacts on knowledge management for organization. This evolved into me co-editing a special issue of an international journal on the topic. I also conduct research on cyber-deviance, and teach industry and government on the implications of workplace harassment, bullying (face-to-face but also virtual). So, let’s get on with the blog, shall we?
Virtual Harassment & Cyberbullying
Back before the Internet existed, flaming and abusive language was common on many BBS communities (not all, but it was definitely a component of the culture). I became rather adept at being a purveyor of anonymous, asynchronous zingers, and the occasional identified, synchronous zingers in the rudimentary chat function. In the early 90s, the internet emerged, and it did so with that history of the toxic culture. That toxic culture still exists today on social media. You can see it when people insult the intelligence of the target. You can see it when the post clearly shows no or little respect to the humanity of the target. Back in the late 80s it was a small clusters of individuals flinging zingers at each other within a very closed group; however, today, those zingers are literally global without any limits in a much shorter timeframe. These zingers aren’t actually “zingers” – they are behaviors that constitute interpersonal mistreatment and may constitute harassment.
Harassment is a legal term and has definite behaviors (for a complete list, please see this site for Canadian Government Resource). The ones I see most frequently in social media are the following:
- Making rude, degrading or offensive remarks.
- Making gestures that seek to intimidate. (Emoticons, words, gifs can serve this purpose.)
- Discrediting the person by spreading malicious gossip or rumours,
- Ridiculing, humiliating the person,
- Calling into question the person’s convictions or their private life,
- Shouting (most commonly “seen” in ALL CAPS) abuse at the person.
- Name calling in private or in front of others.
- Destabilizing the person by making fun of their beliefs, values, political and/or religious choices, and mocking their weak points.
Each of these were deemed to be “good fun” in the toxic culture I witnessed (and partook in as a teenager). However, it isn’t good fun. It is toxic, and it comes with very real and very costly consequences.
When the above behaviors go from one-offs or maybe a few times, to a persistent targeted effort against the target(s), it shifts from being harassment to bullying. In Canada, cyberbullying is a criminal offense as per Bill C13 – the intent of that bill was to prohibit inappropriate photos/videos being posted or becoming viral; however, it also covers threats to safety. In Australia, there is Brodie’s Law which prohibits workplace bullying. (In Canada, non-discriminatory harassment and workplace bullying are covered under Occupational Health & Safety Legislation under provincial jurisdiction.)
The consequences to harassment and bullying are significant, and include the following (an individual may experience many or all of these symptoms):
- embarrassment & humiliation,
- fear for personal safety,
- fear of future harassment,
- increased anger,
- decreased positive affect,
- cognitive distraction,
- post-traumatic stress disorder,
- decreased job satisfaction,
- leaving the job,
- leaving the profession,
- sleep disturbances,
- diminished health and well-being,
- suicidal ideation, attempts, and
- suicide. (Targets of bullying have a higher rate of suicide than the “normal population”. One study I heard at a conference cited bullycide occurred at 20% rate versus normal population rate of 7%.)
My own research suggests that the impacts of harassment are worse for those experiencing it through computer-mediated communications than face-to-face. Research also shows that reach/publicity (i.e., the number of people seeing it) and anonymity make it far worse for the target. My own research (and experience with virtual sexual harassment) plus a qualitative study by D’Cruz and Noronha (2013) show that when workplace virtual harassment is received when the target is at home (not at work), it also has an amplifying effect on the negative outcomes.
“The nightmare never ends… even at home, on weekends… always” (D’Cruz & Noronha, 2013, p.335-336).
However it doesn’t only impact the target; witnesses are also affected by virtual harassment or cyberbullying. They too can experience stress, fear, altered emotional states, cognitive distractions, leave jobs or professions (e.g., stop judging, stop supporting an agility organization, or leave agility altogether). However, they don’t usually experience PTSD, or suicidal ideation / attempts / suicide.
Furthermore, witnesses play a role in the experience for the target. They either reinforce the bully (sharing, commenting positively to the post, liking, laughing), implicitly condone the bullying (doing nothing even though witnessed it), or help the target (address the inappropriateness of the post, reach out to the target to offer support). Schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune) is one way witnesses become a bully and reinforce bullying. It is a rationalization in which there is denial of the victim (i.e., ‘they deserved it’). (For more rationalizations commonly used in defending bullying or harassment behaviors, read my post on Rationalizations.)
So what starts with a single post can quickly escalate within social media to a very negative and extremely toxic experience for many…. but a dangerous one for the targets.
Before I move onto what we do need to do, I would be remiss if I ignored the issue of internet trolls. Trolls are not the same thing as cyberbullies. Cyberbullies have a pre-existing relationship between the instigator and the target; a troll does not. The academic definition of a troll is a person who is seeking to deceive, aggravate, create disruption, and for whom success is getting a response indicating they have achieved that mission. Research has found that trolls tend to have a personality that is sadistic, and non-clinical psychopathic (impulsive with no empathy). (Cyberbullies may also be psychopaths, but they may also be narcissists, or the average Jack or Jill.) However, the strongest predictor of trolls’ behavior is negative social potency (getting that a response that shows there was disruption / aggravation / deception). Their tactics are random and mass-target approach. When they get a response they will direct their attention there. If you are targeted by a troll, report any threats to the relevant officials, record the evidence, and then block them. Do not engage – do not click-treat their efforts.
So what does this mean?
It means, you – as an individual, as a participant in social media, as a member of the global agility community – have a responsibility to use social media wisely. Think before you post. Ask yourself:
- Does this post add to the health and well-being of all individuals involved (target included)? (Yes = post!)
- Would this post potentially embarrass the target? (Maybe or Yes = do NOT post!)
- Would this post potentially humiliate the target? (Maybe or Yes = do NOT post!)
- Does this post address an issue or a concern? (Yes, then proceed to next questions…)a. Does it focus exclusively on a thing, task, process? (Yes = post with extreme care and ensure it is well-crafted and is worded extremely respectfully)
b. Does it involve a person (including a person’s behavior)? (Yes = social media is NOT the place for this…. this is getting very close to the territory of socio-emotional conflict, harassment, and if repeated, bullying.)
If it is a post you are considering sharing or commenting on, ask the above questions and reflect if you are engaging in interpersonal mistreatment or if you can play a role in mitigating or stopping it for the target. Remember, schadenfreude and rationalizations are powerful motivators for this type of mistreatment. Take a good hard look at your motives and the potential impact before acting.
I have seen social media used for good:
- boosting people’s sense of self-worth,
- encouraging them to try,
- celebrating their successes,
- sharing of one’s own vulnerability and challenges.
- addressing significant concerns about *things* (not people) and coordinate efforts.
- addressing procedural or informational injustices.
It is your responsibility to add to our sport’s health and well-being; just as it is my responsibility, too. We are in this together, and anonymous viral harassing posts can do so much harm it can literally bring blood to your hands. Be a “keyboard ambassador” for wellness and growth, not a “keyboard warrior” for disruption or harm. Use the power of your words wisely and kindly, because, once they are posted, they cannot be taken back (even if you delete, someone may have captured it already with a screenshot).
I hope this helps; individually and together we can make a difference.
Coyne, I., Farley, S., Axtell, C., Best, L., & Kwok, O. (2017). Understanding the relationship between experiencing workplace cyberbullying, employee mental strain and job satisfaction: A dysempowerment approach. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 28(7), 945-972.
Craker, N., & March, E. (2016). The dark side of Facebook®: The Dark Tetrad, negative social potency, and trolling behaviours. Personality and Individual Differences, 102, 79-84.
D’Cruz, P., & Noronha, E. (2013). Navigating the extended reach: Target experiences of cyberbullying at work. Information and Organization, 23(4), 324-343.
Ford, D. P. (2013). Virtual Harassment: Media Characteristics’ Role in Psychological Health. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 28(4), 408-427.
Ford, D. P. (2015). The Relevance of Media Characteristics for Targets’ Experience of Workplace Aggression. Paper presented at the Work, Stress and Health Conference, Atlanta, GA, USA.
Gillespie, G. L., Bresler, S., Gates, D. M., & Succop, P. (2013). Posttraumatic stress symptomology among emergency department workers following workplace aggression. Workplace Heath & Safety, 61(6), 247-254.
Sest, N., & March, E. (2017). Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 69-72.