The Virus of Online Abuse: A Pompey Writer Speaks Out

As a writer it’s important to be able to take criticism. Constructive criticism can help you improve. But what about when criticism turns into personal attacks and cruel abuse? Portsmouth writer Maddie Wallace reports.

In May I posted on my Facebook parenting blog about the online, multiplayer game Fortnite (the same article was republished here on S&C). I have a few hundred followers on that blog, mostly friends, and it took me twenty minutes to write the post. The following month it was picked up by Kidspot, Australia’s largest parenting website, and from there it went viral.

That was not what I planned. In fact, I hadn’t planned anything, that was part of the problem. I was trying to work late into the evening on my post-grad dissertation and was forced to stop, yet again, to deal with the older of my two sons losing his temper over the game. His younger brother and sister were in bed. He was on his allocated daily hour of Fortnite when he started shouting at the screen and I made him turn it off. Again. He stormed up to bed, appalled at the unfairness of his life.

I sat and ranted at my keyboard, without any thought as to what I was about to unleash on myself. That was my first mistake: assuming that only my friends would be interested in reading what I had to say. My second was assuming that my words would remain mine.

When Kidspot contacted me a month later to ask if they could republish my blog I agreed: again, without proper consideration. All I thought was, ‘This is perfect timing! I’ve just launched my freelance writing business, I can add it to my CV.’ And then I carried on making dinner one-handed while trying to stop my 3 year old emptying the fridge onto the dog.

I didn’t think about LADbible picking it up, and then gaming sites taking it from there. I didn’t think about how your words can be twisted, restructured and presented out of context. Or how people will respond to the article published on another site without checking the original source before screaming abuse about the author.

I didn’t consider the level of anger that comes with putting yourself out there on the internet because I hadn’t experienced it before. These are my mistakes and I own them. And I’ve learnt valuable lessons from them, not least that adult to adult cyberbullying is as much a problem as adolescent cyberbullying but receives a lot less focus in the research. In fact, between 2004 and 2016, there have only been 90 studies on adult cyberbullying, despite PEW research last year showing that 62% of Americans think it’s a problem. (I can’t even find any UK-based research on this.)

A lot of the abuse I received was personal. It was about my parenting — or lack thereof in the eyes of the commenters. Some of it was ridiculous, like the perfectly ironic woman who started her comment by saying, ‘I didn’t even read the article, she’s clearly an idiot’. Lots of comments were in the vain of ‘Well, in my house…’ or ‘I’d never let my children…’ and orders to ‘Just turn the internet off!’ (Helpful, when I work and study from home.)

I recently ran a quick poll on Facebook, and 95% of the respondents agreed to not feeling like they know what they’re doing all of the time as parents. Parenting is often a hotch-potch of strategies that work for one day but not the next, trial and error, rewards, regrets, patience, surprises (both good and bad), and a never ending challenge.

A limited poll conducted on the author’s Facebook page. Credit Maddie Wallace.

Of the 5% who feel that they’ve nailed parenting, one was a friend of mine who doesn’t even have kids. He just figured you’d start off feeling like you’d 100% nailed it every day and work down from there.

The obvious limitations of the poll are that it could just be my friends who agree that parenting has the potential to be a confusing nightmare, perhaps the rest of the world — or at least some of those commenting on my blog — have infinitely more knowledge and understanding of parenting than me and my friends. In which case, why are there so many parenting sites offering advice, blogs detailing the agonies of parenthood, and what were all those perfect parents doing on a parenting website in the first place? If they’re so good at it, are they only there to judge the pitiful attempts made by others that don’t meet their standards?

But the pious, sanctimonious and judgemental abuse on the parenting sites, and the quite frankly ridiculous insults from the gaming community, were nothing compared to the private messages from total strangers arriving in my inbox telling me what a ‘see you next Tuesday’ I am, what an awful parent and person I am, and how I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.

Who takes the time out of their day to message someone to tell them what a c*nt they are over something they read on the internet? Lots of people do, apparently. I deleted them. Afterwards I considered that I should have kept them and reported them to Facebook. I did think about it, but I didn’t want to see them in my inbox; these strangers invading my space with their spite and vitriol. I closed down the abuse by delete, delete, deleting it.

That was another mistake. As with all forms of bullying, reporting it is important. I didn’t. I took the opinion that you can’t control what anyone else thinks about you or says to you, but you can control how you react to it. So I worked on reducing my stress and anxiety, I lent hard on my support network (because the viral vomit volcano was just one of many stresses this year), I stopped writing my blog while I looked at the mistakes I’d made, and the part I’d played in inviting that abuse into my life. I used the resources available to me with a university library account to research why adults behave like this to other adults online because it intrigued me. I’m now studying a PhD on truth and fiction, and this whole experience helped shaped my research trajectory.

Far from setting a good example for the next generation, adults are often the ones screaming abuse at others on the internet as soon as someone says something they don’t agree with. Cyberbullying is the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. Abuse on a public page in open forum discussion can also become private messages attacking someone personally.

In his 2004 Psychology of Cyberspace, John Suler identified a phenomenon he called the online disinhibition effect, where individuals behave in a toxic way online because the remoteness of the internet means they feel they don’t have to own their behaviour in the way they would offline. Suler’s research was based around chat room behaviour and bullying, but has proven prescient given the stratospheric explosion of social media in the last decade.

So why are some adults behaving like the internet is the school playground? Theories around adult cyberbullying suggest those engaging in it  - like the school bullies we knew and perhaps were as children - are  lacking in personal confidence and seeking validation for their own beliefs and feelings. Sue Scheff, who writes extensively on this subject, suggests that when adults cross the line from free speech to cruel behaviour, they are revealing the fear and jealousy that still exists amongst grown-ups, even though we’re meant to be, well, grown up.

And maybe some of us have forgotten that humans are constantly growing, learning about themselves, adapting to their changing worlds, and as such, no one has it nailed 100% of the time. It only takes one set back, one child to go off the rails, one cancer diagnosis, one redundancy, one accident, one second to pull the rug right out from under our carefully constructed personal narratives. Maybe all the abuse, the bullying, the disparagement of others is also rooted in our own fears of not getting it right ourselves. Of having to look back with regret at our own failings because we made a poor choice, or an unexpected disaster happened to us.

I wonder if a part of the culture of online abuse and shaming is also just habit. I know I’ve laughed and shared things without much consideration in the past that in hindsight, I shouldn’t have. The polarisation we are seeing in the US and the UK, (since 2016 flipped us upside down into the vortex of the unknown), means we are witnessing unprecedented abuse from both sides by adults who disagree with each other’s version of the truth. When an adviser to the US President describes the press secretary as having ‘alternative facts’, making the White House itself an oxymoron, how can your everyday Joe and Jo be expected to know up from down?

This is partly because of those pesky algorithms, which observe what we search for, what we like and then let us gorge on it. Like most people I don’t fully understand algorithms, but I’m told they’re responsible for our social media selves existing in a vacuum of self-serving self-appreciation, being drip fed our ‘likes’ into our own little bubbles of reality. If you happen to be, say, a Trump supporter, who has Googled things he’s done, clicked on links related to positive stories about the President shared by your friends, and shared similar things yourself, then that is what you’ll see more of. Likewise, if you are left-leaning, care about the environment, seek equality and would just like big business to pay their taxes , that’s what your feed will predominantly show. Your clicks decide which adverts will appear on other websites as you scroll, click and navigate your way around the internet. (Try searching for Mont Blanc fountain pens two nights running when your kids are in bed and you want to fantasise about things you can’t afford - that’s all you’ll see on every website you click on for the next week.)

When we engage with people from outside of our bubble, it’s often with hostility towards the other. I’m not sure I can recall such a polarised society in my life time; divisions between East and West, right and left, the wealthy and the poor. It feels like they are running out of our control. It feels scarier than the Cold War, if you’re old enough to remember that, because our sense of reality is so impinged by what feels like a lack of human decency.

The internet and social media were meant to bring us together, but instead of opening doors to a better world, the money machine behind social media has manipulated us like a data-structure Trojan Horse, forcing open the doors to our own dark underworlds. It’s now become so common to see someone being vilified online that we barely register it as bullying.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to make an effort to be better people online. Many people are beginning to realise that everything you post online is accountable to you. It’s not a game of Battle Royale where the best troll wins, and it’s not a void where anything goes. Every single thing you post is there, and where Facebook is concerned, even the things you delete.

I’m not anti-social media, not at all. It can be a wonderful tool, and I post a lot on Facebook and connect with people all over the world. As a single parent Facebook has, especially in the past, been my life-line and kept isolation and loneliness at bay.

It’s not just down to Facebook or governments to instil the rules. It’s up to us as users too, on all platforms. We can’t control how others behave, we can only control how we ourselves behave. We have a choice. We can choose to be kind to ourselves and others. To call out poor behaviour when we see it. To walk away or click out of a thread when we feel our anger rising and we haven’t taken the time to work out what is behind that rage.

Lashing out at someone online, arguing, throwing insults and sending abusive private messages should not be the behaviour of adults. It’s not being the decent human beings we can be. And what are we teaching our kids? That if you are angry it’s OK to Tweet derisive comments about another human being at 3am?

We need to be better than this.

A version of this article first appeared on Medium.