Twitter Trolls Have a Lot More Power than You Think

January 22nd 2015

With over 284 million monthly active users, Twitter provides an array of services to broad swaths of the international community. Twitter can be a user-friendly news aggregator or wind to the fires of social changes – or it can be a place where users anonymously ridicule and harass others.

Whether you love it or hate it, it can be difficult to leave it. Lena Dunham told Ryan Seacrest at the Golden Globes that she was deleting Twitter from her phone to “create a safer space for (herself) emotionally.”

“People threaten my life and tell me what a cow I am,” said Dunham. “There's a lot of people I love on Twitter, but unfortunately you can't read those without reading deranged neo-cons telling you you should be buried under a pile of rocks."

After this interview, multiple outlets assumed that Dunham was deleting her account rather than just deleting the app, which Dunham addressed in two tweets from January 12th.  

“I deleted Twitter from my phone and sometimes send a tweet to a friend I trust to post it if I’m out and about and wanna share,” says the first tweet.

The second tweet reads, “We gotta create systems that make us feel safe. Sorry I confused you aka who cares.” 

Dunham has every right to selectively abstain from Twitter, as does anyone else who feels threatened, abused, or picked on through social media. Celebrities are an especially easy target of cyberbulling and of jokes made at their expense. They are, after all, rich and famous, which leads plenty of Twitter users assume that celebrities are so high-profile and so frequently tweeted at that there is no chance they would ever read anything tweeted about them. 

Who would ever imagine that Ty Burrell would see the tweet, “Ty Burrell looks like Jon Hamm if Jon Hamm was a crack addict”? Or that Britney Spears would see that someone had written, “I feel like Britney Spears is stalking me (sic) the radio. Quit forcing your suckage on me you tired hag.” 

If these insults sound familiar, you may have seen Ty Burrell and Britney Spears reading them aloud on the eighth installment of Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets. 

The Twitter user who said that Ty Burrell looked like a crack addict actually posted Kimmel’s Mean Tweets video to his own Twitter shortly after the segment appeared on YouTube. “So this was unexpected,” the tweet reads. “Also I seriously still can’t believe I tweeted that.” 

That same day, the user tweeted: “And FTR (for the record), I don’t dislike Mr. Burrell, that’s just how 2011 Matt rolled.” 

Dunham appeared in the "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets #8" video as well, and read a tweet that says: “Unpopular opinion: lena dunham’s boobs are dog noses.” 

Behind the massive popularity of Mean Tweets 

As of the writing of this article, Kimmel’s Mean tweets segments (eight regular editions, a music edition, two NBA editions, an NFL edition, and a college football edition) have received a total of over 327 million views on YouTube, not counting any ripped versions not uploaded by the official Kimmel channel. 

The audience's laughter, the faux tragic soundtrack in the background, and the self-deprecation and humor with which the celebrities read attacks on their characters, their work, and their bodies, help us believe that this is all in good fun. But if Lena Dunham, who is widely regarded as someone who feels comfortable being herself, critics be damned, is tired of being attacked on social media, it’s hard to believe that none of these other celebrities feel the same way.  

It's easy to revel in seeing celebrities get knocked down a peg, but these videos would hardly be funny were “normal” people to read insulting tweets about themselves. While it may seem contradictory to hate cyberbullying and love Mean Tweets, these videos also highlight the ignorance of many people who believe their tweets are sent out into a vacuum; they serve to simultaneously exploit the phenomenon of anonymous mean-spirited jokes online and to ridicule it. 

The description of another Kimmel video, of a similar nature but not part of the Mean Tweets series, captures this sentiment perfectly: “People write unbelievably harsh comments on every web page. No sane person would ever say these kinds of things to someone's face.”

It’s difficult to imagine that the majority of these users would ever have expected to see their words (often riddled with grammatical errors and rarely especially clever) on the air. Many of these users hide behind the veil of anonymity and/or the assumption of freedom from consequences, especially when tweeting at celebrities, who often seem untouchable and invincible in ways that they very clearly are not. So if a large aspect of the appeal of these videos is due to the fact that its targets are famous, do viewers believe that these celebrities “deserve” to be publicly mocked, that such trolling comes with the territory of having a recognizable name?

From Mean Tweets to cyberbullying

Nev Schulman’s recent piece for ATTN: highlights his own struggles with online harassment on Twitter:

“Rather than promoting ideas and supporting individuality, social media, our global platform for free speech, has too often become a place to spread racial stereotypes, promote sexism as well as other forms of bigotry. While there are efforts being made to harness the power of community online, I can't help but notice how much time and energy is wasted creating social stereotypes, spreading rumors, and highlighting cultural differences in an effort to isolate and mock those who are different.”

Schulman concludes his piece by imploring users to use social media “with purpose and for peace.” 

“Abuse” on Twitter, broadly defined, runs the gamut from personal attacks and jokes of the type found on Kimmel’s Mean Tweets, to the targeted cyberbulling and harassment that Schulman experienced, to threats against another person’s life.

But why do so many people feel that the internet is a “safe” place to mock and harass others? The idea of anonymity is a relative fallacy, as San Diego teens discovered when they were arrested for their “anonymous” threats of gun violence, issued via social media site Yik Yak. Freedom of speech has been the subject of much celebration and scrutiny over the last few months, from the Sony hack to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. While this freedom of speech may extend to the rude and vulgar, it doesn't cover violent threats, regardless of whether or not the user was planning to carry out these threats.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that those who use social media to make statements that a reasonable person would feel threatened by can be held accountable for their actions. In Elonis v. United States, Anthony Elonis was sentenced to four years in prison for threatening to kill his wife on Facebook, despite his claims that he was simply writing rap music and venting.  

We spoke with Dr. Simon Rego, Psy.D., Director of Psychology Training at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, about the motivations of cyberbullies and his recommendation for curbing online harassment. Dr. Rego said that many cyberbullies share a lack of empathy.

"The less you're able to get into someone else's shoes and understand, relate or share their emotions, the more likely you are to engage in cyberbullying," Dr. Rego said.

Dr. Rego also mentioned that existing research supports a number of different motives for cyberbullies, including anger, the desire to show off some sort of skill or ability, and retaliation -- many cyberbullies may be lashing out due to bullying they themselves suffered. The internet offers a level playing field to those who suffered traditional bullying and were unable to fight back because of their size. Dr. Rego spoke about the differences between traditional bullying and cyberbullying, explaining that traditional bullies might get a rush from seeing their impact on others, while with cyberbullies, according to Dr. Rego: "It's the venting of a feeling that feels good regardless of being able to see its impact on other people." 

The tragic consequences of cyberbullying and the limits of freedom of expression

A recent campaign by Champions Against Bullying, in partnership with ad agency Deutsch New York, powerfully illustrates the potential that social media has to affirm and empower rather than to degrade. In the video, teens read messages of support and love on social media. Towards the end of the video, onscreen text reveals that each comment was taken from the social media page of a teen who killed himself or herself after being bullied.  

“Be nice. Now,” the video urges.

We asked Dr. Rego for his advice on curbing cyberbullying and his suggestions for victims. Helping people imagine the victims of online harassment might soften the behavior, said Dr. Rego. He added, "We can teach kids at a younger age, in the face of this technology, what it means to be empathic towards others."

Dr. Rego doesn't recommend that victims of cyberbullying avoid social platforms altogether, which he said may help in the short-term but perpetuate anxieties over the long term. "In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) we focus on facing one's fears but altering the way you interpret information, so that it doesn't have necessarily the same impact on your emotions and behaviors," said Dr. Rego. He suggests that victims practice reframing online insults in a way that's less harmful, and encourages targets of cyberbullying to maintain strong social networks rather than facing the problem in isolation.  

If you or someone you know feels harassed or threatened, Twitter provides a form that allows you to report the offender. Every Twitter user has the prerogative to abstain from Twitter, if he or she so chooses. But shouldn’t we work towards creating the safe space that Dunham spoke of, rather than letting the anonymous, consequence-clueless cyberbullies ruin it for everyone else? 

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