We need Good Samaritans on the web

19th April 2016, Tom Trevatt

The Guardian / Carrie Rentschler

The culture of online violence is widespread, a majority of respondents (73%) to a recent study have witnessed acts of harassment, and a concerning number (25%) have witnessed criminal acts, such as someone being physically threatened. The growing number of online harassment cases represents a disturbing pattern, but beyond this is the equally worrying trend; standing by without challenging those perpetrating the acts of violence. Too often we let online violence and threatening behaviour go un-policed. However, what is also evident is that while the veil of anonymity allows many perpetrators of online violence to escape retribution (or at least believe they can), there is also an increasing number of people standing in solidarity with the victims of the crime. Hashtags have been appearing that allow bystanders and victims alike to share acts of violent behaviour as it happens, calling out the perpetrators. Online culture can be used to increase division, where violence can be enacted more easily, but equally, we are becoming more comfortable with intervening. Social movements are attempting to redefine acts of solidarity as regular minor acts that people can perform in their day to day lives online, in the hope that the culture of violence can be countered by a culture of bystander intervention. Activists are developing app interfaces and hashtags that can be used to speak back to harassers and support victims and bystanders in their interventions. But these technological “fixes” are not enough, they need to be accompanied by social movements and a change in culture – reconceiving what justice looks like from the point of view of online violence. Often, our model of responding as a bystander is going to the police. But this doesn’t always work, especially when, for people of colour for example, the police are part of the problem. Collective, not only individual, effort is what is needed, redefining what it means to “act” online. In an age of increased isolation, due in no small part to siloing our lives into “online” and offline” realms, these efforts to increase solidarity through collective action are vital. We must learn the communal aspects of the online world, much the same way we learn to treat people in real life. The construction of an understanding of a collective engagement helps us make ethical choices, without this we are bound to experience repeated, violent cyber bullying.