The internet has evolved into a cradle-to-grave platform for social abuse. From the exploitation of small children by sexual deviants, to the pervasive bullying of students, to the radicalization and recruitment of young adults, to the global networks of hate groups and terrorist organizations which receive them, the digital age has failed to achieve the utopian ideals of enlightenment, social justice, and civility. Bullies, of all ages, races, and creeds, flock to the web to find easy targets to victimize, and to locate organizations of like-minded individuals to lend legitimacy and validity to their toxic worldviews. The net also provides them anonymity, and the tools to protect their identities from their victims, from the communities where they live, and from law enforcement agencies who would hold them accountable. And for many groups, the internet offers opportunities to finance those malevolent agendas. What all of these hate groups and bullies have in common is the desire to make someone else’s life miserable, and to use the web to help them do it. This paper will examine a small sample of existing research on the many varied forms of cyber-related abuse.
The group most vulnerable to cyber-abuse is arguably children. A study by Seiler and Navarro (2018) examined the results of a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, conducted with hundreds of parents and children over the phone, and posed a variety of hypotheses regarding the risk factors associated with the experiences of young people and online bullying. Among these risk factors, the authors examined lying about one’s age, sexting, and sociability. Each of these risk factors are identified as such because they tend to increase the chances a child will experience abuse or bullying on the internet.
Sociability refers to a child’s self esteem and confidence. Seiler and Navarro found that “children who were bullied offline were more likely to be cyberbullied than children who had not been bullied offline.” Moreover, they found that “youth who have been cyberbullied are more likely to cyberbully others.” The implication of this finding is that for many children, abuse starts in the real world, affecting the child’s self image and confidence in ways that make them more susceptible to abuse in online environments. In some cases, this continuation may be the result of children being bullied on the web by the same people who are targeting them offline. In other cases, the child’s online behavior and their ability to “develop social relationships,” produce situations in which they are at greater risk of experiencing abuse. Conversely, the authors find that the causality of this influence only works in one direction, asserting that “children who harassed others online weren’t more likely to be cyberbullied than children who had not harassed others online.”
While the behaviors of a bully tend to be similar in the offline world and the online world, there are some structural differences in which the internet tends to favor the bully over the victim. Among these, Seiler and Navarro point out that the bullying, as experienced by the child, is no longer happening just at home and school. It is usually “visible by hundreds” of bystanders, many of whom may also be children, who see the behavior as normal or acceptable, or may be affected in other ways. Additionally, the authors point to the “anonymity provided by cyberbullies by the internet” as an insulating barrier between the bully and any forms of social accountability. This means that the child may be bullied in front of lots of people by someone who is effectively invisible and beyond the reach of law enforcement. Taken together, these aspects of cyberbullying create an environment which produces “the inability of victims to escape cyberbullies.”
Over time, the authors conclude that the experience of being bullied does significant harm to young people’s lives, but that there are some positive strategies for concerned parents and educators to reduce the impact of cyberbullying. Among the effects children experience are “anger, depression, embarrassment and sadness.” But in their study, Seiler and Navarro found that when parents take the time to talk to their children about appropriate internet behavior and the dangers of the internet, and also commit to monitoring their children’s daily online activities, the children are far less likely to report having been bullied online. Furthermore, they found a direct relationship between “daily use of social networking sites and the internet” and the “risk of experiencing cyberbullying and offline bullying.” The authors recommend moderation, it is important to note, because outright prohibition “would cut off a significant method of communication among youth.” In other words, in a tech-centric society, children’s lives are a combination of their offline and online lives. Children should be able to use the internet safely, to play games with their friends, to connect with their families, and to learn, without being afraid of being cyberbullied. The authors are clear that the most important role in accomplishing this rests with parents and guardians.
Eventually, children and youth who do use the internet will be exposed to far more toxic and destructive behaviors and personalities than just their mean classmates. Hate groups and terrorist organizations use the internet to recruit young people, to spread propaganda, to obtain financial support, and to target victims and plan attacks in the real world. Before entering into that discussion, it is useful to point out that what many of these groups have in common is a manifesto. A manifesto, generally speaking, is a declaration of identity and purpose. There are many examples of positive manifestos, but for white supremacist groups, terrorist organizations, and mass shooters, the manifesto is often the first clearly visible sign that a person has reached the stage at which hate-based ideologies actualize into physical attacks against perceived enemies, be they ethnic and religious minorities, people with alternative lifestyles, or even state and federal authorities.
On the internet, manifestos are a dime a dozen, and have the advantage of global distribution. Julian Hanna explores this burgeoning form of political and social expression in Future Shock: Manifestos in the Digital Age. (2019) Hanna cites many examples of traditional manifestos, going all the way back to the 18th century. These examples involve everything from worker’s rights, feminist and LGBTQ movements, futurists, and even the residents of cyberspace. Manifestos often have many things in common, says Hanna, including opportunities for “presenting alternative futures,” and for “outlining concrete actions,” but most simply, they are used for “making it clear that the status quo is intolerable.” Hanna refers to this aspect of manifestos as a “revolutionary model,” and describes manifestos as being aggressive, and often altruistic, but notes that “violence is often baked in… The internet provides endless content for manifestos promoting hatred and violence.” In the greater context of cyberbullying, a manifesto is the written result of a bully’s efforts to codify their own prejudice and contempt into an overarching worldview which they hope others will ascribe to.
Hanna touches on dozens of unique manifestos in history and in contemporary society. For a better understanding of those examples, readers are encouraged to view her work for themselves. However, some of her specific commentary is germane to our discussion of the internet as a breeding ground for a variety of ideologies and the social movements which embrace them:
“Movements like the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, of #MeToo might not have happened without the visibility and sheer numbers afforded by social media acceleration. The same could be true, however, for the rise of so-called ‘white nationalism’ or the Islamic State. Because with social media comes the constant push-- pressure by design-- to form and declare strong opinions, to argue with opponents, to give voice to negative feelings and outrage-- all as a means of soliciting and securing content and engagement for the platform itself.”
The reason why this last point is so important is because our behavior on social media is largely influence driven. Whatever our individual content may be, we want attention. We want likes, and shares, and feedback. Social media is designed around these desires to facilitate self-promotion, which becomes its own justification. In other words, these platforms are not only built to share our thoughts and ideas, but to provide gratification in the form of attention, which in turn, becomes a kind of reward which reinforces our behavior. When our behavior is negative, as the other studies discussed in this article contend, social media is still capable of rewarding us with attention. Whether users receive positive or negative attention is not relevant , the gratification of recognition alone can drive the cycle of abuse, hatred, and violence. So in one sense, a manifesto is like a charter, around which hate groups and radical ideologues can build cohesive communities, but in another sense, a manifesto is a tool for garnering the kind of attention necessary to legitimize, gratify, and therefore perpetuate those groups.
The question of positive or negative attention is also a pertinent one for terrorist organizations and hate groups. In Fear or Love: Terrorist Groups and the Strategy of Building Reputation, Akcinaroglu and Tokdemir (2018) explore the cost-benefit analysis such groups perform in deciding on certain courses of action. The authors note that while some groups, like Boko Haram specifically, use primarily hostile force and indiscriminate intimidation against their victims in order to obtain and retain power in a given community, other groups, like Hamas, endeavor to cultivate a positive image by “providing medical clinics, schools, charities, drug-treatment centers, mosques, and youth and sports clubs.” To some extent, this behavior is also observed among hate groups (discussed below), who wish to undermine established social stigmas associated with their groups and promote an outward-facing image of legitimacy in order to break into the mainstream.
Akcinaroglu and Tokdemir rightly recognize the substantive difference between actions which may be either “engendering or alienating supporters.” It is ironic to note how much attention will be spent by hate groups and terrorist organizations, whose sole unifying characteristic is the desire to promote prejudice and violence against others, on the task of building a positive reputation. Even people motivated by hatred and contempt apparently just want to be loved and respected. The unifying objectives of such groups are to obtain resources and solicit recruits. The difference is whether these are obtained “voluntarily or involuntarily.” In either course, there is a risk-reward calculus which informs the decision to employ positive or negative methods of obtaining what is needed. The authors explain “coercive tactics...are less costly” than are “tactics to win hearts and minds,” but that such groups recognise the chance they may be “unable to recover [those] initial costs,” due to counterterrorism, free-riding, and local resistance.
In this last line, counterterrorism refers to formal state and military efforts to thwart terrorist groups; free-riding essentially describes those individuals who live in a community controlled by a terrorist group and enjoy the benefits without having to actually contribute to the costs; and local resistance refers to existing attitudes and activities which prevent a community from embracing the ideology of or accepting the control by a given terrorist group. On the other hand, though positive reputation-building strategies can be more costly in terms of material resources, negative strategies, such as violence and intimidation, can also be costly to that reputation. The authors assert that “low-cost strategies, overall, diminish the group’s popularity and offer limited returns...Terror tactics...produce publicity,” but they also “disaffect the outgroup population.”
In the end, reputation can be the most important consideration for a terrorist group, which requires a constant supply of financial resources and new recruits. A bad rep, or similarly, poor management (the decisions about which strategies to use, when, and why) can be the reason why such resources are not forthcoming. Moreover, a bad rep can motivate all sorts of opposition and interference. Therefore, as the Akcinoroglu and Tokdemir observe, these groups are careful to distinguish between their constituents and non-constituents. These may be the residents of geographically defined communities, in the physical sense, or geographically disparate web users around the world, in the context of cyberspace. On the internet, constituencies are necessarily defined in abstract terms, by religious affiliation, in the case of Islamic State, or by indefinite notions of racial superiority, as in the case of white nationalist movements.
This inevitably yields a duality, whereby determinations must be made about the visibility of certains kinds of content by the online content producers. A fascinating paradox-- hate group webmasters might take efforts to conceal information about attacks, plans, or illegal activity, and even certain degrees of subversive speech, and restrict access to those materials to certain specific users based on some perceived credibility or threat, while simultaneously maintaining a separate set of moral and ethical standards for what is openly visible and accessible to the general public, even insofar as those aforementioned efforts to legitimize the group’s ideology in the mainstream. Indeed, a “reputation” must be a very tricky thing for some groups to manage.
When it comes to the task of rehabilitating and normalizing a reputation, perhaps no group has a more uphill battle than the Ku Klux Klan (one would venture to suggest Nazis as a suitable alternative, but the actual Nazi party no longer exists as a recognized group, and, aside from Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan is the generally only hate group ever mentioned in American school-aged textbooks). It would have been appropriate for rational minded people to assume that, like the Nazis, the KKK had been effectively driven underground and into obscurity. But in the age of the internet, the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and other traditionally violent-extremists have found a forever-home. Again, the anonymity afforded to bullies, as discussed above, combined with a ready made global audience, seems a tailor-made tool for advancing the white-supremacists’ agenda.
As a result, instead of being discarded with the rubbish of history, those racist ideologies have found fertile ground and proliferated beyond anyone’s most terrifying expectations. Researchers Wong and Frank (2015) examined an extensive map of the white supremacist network and identified many forums, themes, and methods which these groups use to recruit, promote, and finance themeselves and their agendas. A single idea, from which all the rest of the ideology is derived, binds white nationalists around the world. Wong and Frank define “caucasians who have no [Jewish] affiliation, known as the Aryan race, make up the elite of all races while other races are considered inferior.” The American Ku Klux Klan and the “greater white pride movement” by which such organizations are subsumed, seek to promote a discriminatory message of overt racial superiority to constituents and non constituents alike. According to Wong and Frank, “the advent of the internet has granted white supremacist organizations a cost effective medium with which to disseminate information and recruit like-minded individuals from a worldwide community while incurring little personal risk.” This issue of risk assessment is a recurring theme.
Wong and Frank discuss five unique and popular white supremacy forums examined in their research, in terms of “activities, content, and sentiments related to white supremacy.” In their review of literature leading up this commentary, they assert that “the consensus of research examining the offline experience of extremists and violent extremists suggests that individuals who express their far right identities have often experienced a great deal of social resistance and condemnation in real social settings.” Risk of exposure is an occupational hazard contemplated in common by bullies in the school yard, internet trolls, international terrorists, and white supremacists alike. This is an important revelation, that a little daylight goes a long way. But this commonality seems important in considering the internet in the greater context of a social experiment. Further research might prove or disprove the hypothesis that a relationship exists between childhood propensities for bullying and the likelihood of affiliating with a supremacist or terrorist movement later in life. The consequence of such a finding would perhaps reinforce the suggestion that effective parental involvement and tutelage at a young age can mitigate the risk of such behaviors, as concluded by Seiler and Navarro. A concerted societal effort to intervene has, at its absolute theoretical limit, the possibility to kill an awful lot of these pesky birds with a single stone.
The nature of white supremacy, concealed (on good days) in the light of day, is laid bare on dedicated social media forums. Again, it is ironic to observe how much anonymity encourages people to be who they really are. Perhaps this phenomenon is a testament to the progress which society has made in stamping out so many dubious dogmas in the real world. One assumes that while a swastika tattoo might earn a man a drink in the right bar in South Carolina, it would tend to disqualify one from most elected offices or other professional careers. This stigma, instead of educating and informing the rationality of a potential initiate into the doctrine, actually serves to confirm the biased worldview being presented. As Wong and Frank note, one of the most prominent (and predictable) elements found in the online world of white supremacy, was “antagonistic rhetoric toward perceived racial enemies.” Another, equally predictable claim: that a “majority of the media and news is surreptitiously controlled by the Jewish Nation.” Moreover, even the government is involved, and adherents point to “affirmative action programs and immigration as proof of white abrogation.” This paranoid rhetoric is in keeping with what these authors described as an overall perception rooted in the “[characterization] of the white race as victims.”
Other common features of the white supremacist movement are discussed by Wong and Frank. Broadly, these fall into a few distinct categories, to include the use of symbols and imagery to identify and distinguish members of the tribe, a penchant for historical revisionism (especially holocaust denial), the process of targeting and recruiting new members, and the methods of financing these efforts. White supremacy, in these terms, sustains itself by borrowing strategies from religion and business alike, and for all practical reasons, should be thought of as a little bit of both. And for all these reasons, parents should take every precaution to keep their kids away from these people on the internet, because their methods of targeting, seducing, and recruiting membership to the ingroup is just as aggressively sophisticated as their methods for targeting, harassing, and hurting members of the outgroup are brutal and malevolent.
One thing Wong and Frank make clear, young people are the target audience for hate groups trying to grow and expand their reach. This occurs “through the following sequential stages: searching, seduction, captivation, persuasion, [and] operative.” In simplest terms, searching means striking up random conversations with strangers and fishing for people with sympathetic attitudes. Seduction is the process of amplifying the value of affiliation for a potential initiate. Captivation is getting them to start rationalizing that value on their own. Persuasion is securing a solid commitment. And operative means someone has been persuaded to the extent they will act in accordance with the will of the organization. Wong and Frank observed the use of “racist video games...hate rock… bright colors, child friendly layouts, [and] jokes...to assist children in learning more about the movement.” The authors point to online stores where funds are raised and the message is spread using merchandise: “books, clothing, and music.” The forums discussed were StormFront, the Vanguard News Network, White News Now, Tightrope, and Occidental Enclave.
Legitimacy is another goal sought by organized white supremacist networks. Websites, according to Wong and Frank, will be designed to resemble reputable news outlets, and will supplement their propaganda with other themes such as lifestyle, business, technology, entertainment, and culture. Website forums will engage visitors on current events in order to blur the lines between extremism and the mainstream, chipping away at the stigma in pursuit of the appearance of normalcy. “Online behaviors,” say Wong and Frank, are often related to “offline violence.” And violence underwrites the whole premise of racial superiority, so while the users of these forums may be caustic and antisocial, it is important to note that violence doesn’t occur on the internet, violence only occurs in the real world. While seeking on the one hand to normalize hate speech and racial discrimination in business, entertainment, education, and government, these websites also offer users the ability to form interpersonal relationships, resulting in informal networks of potentially violent extremists who do not require legitimacy, in the broad philosophical sense, to plan and execute an actual physical attack on another individual, group, or facility in the here-and-now.
Bullying, whether the uninhibited digital manifestation of youthful rivalry, or the savage brutality of an ethnic supremacist against the historically disenfranchised, or the global campaign of terror against nationstates, amounts to a problem of human nature. As with all such problems, the roots reach into childhood itself, flowering or wilting according to the eternal dynamics established between nurture and nature. The statistical relationship between children who bully others and the likelihood of imbibing the messages of hate groups later in life may be discoverable, but the results would be arbitrary. The fact that young bullies exist, combined with the visible efforts of such groups to target, indoctrinate, and activate them, as a matter of growth and survival, let alone principle, demands the conclusion that whatever the surveys might indicate, these organizations are themselves persuaded that such a relationship exists, and are committed to exploiting it.
Dan Olweus (2012) defined cyberbullying as “bullying performed via electronic means such as mobile/cell phones or the internet.” Of 450 thousand students surveyed on the subject, Olweus observed reports of name calling, exclusion, smearing, and assault. Based on the data collected, he defines bullying as “when a student is teased repeatedly in a mean or hurtful way.” In his review of the literature, Olweus finds that the most commonly discussed impacts on students’ lives include depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and suicidal ideation. While Olweus is highly critical of media claims which he believes exaggerate the prevalence of this behavior, he suggests that the real harm of such treatment of cyberbullying results in “misappropriated resources.” In other words, society’s effort at large should be much more heavily concentrated on changing behaviors and expectations in the real world, and in so doing, the internet environment, which has proven otherwise ungovernable, will change in favorable ways as a consequence.
Reflecting on the research sampled in this discussion, lessons emerge. The first is that children are the most vulnerable targets of bullies. They can be divided into groups. Some children have vigilant parents and strong self-images, and are at less risk of experiencing cyberbullying or traditional bullying. Other children experience both forms in the course of their development. And among all of these, a third group exists as well: children who are being actively groomed by hate groups and terrorist organizations. The second lesson is that the internet itself, by design, incentivizes these later groups to brand and recruit. Gratification, legitimacy, risk-management, propaganda, and resources are all among the advantages baked into the global social infrastructure of the digital age. The third lesson is that the value of the role of the parent in mitigating these influences a child’s life cannot be understated. Further research may someday prove conclusively that reducing the pervasive phenomenon of bullying, on and off the web, in a young person’s life, vastly reduces the appeal of hate groups and terrorist organizations later on.
While the line between a single bully and a hate group may be something as concrete as a manifesto, the evolution of the one to the other must be a much blurrier and more complicated process. What the research certainly suggests is that the self-images and worldviews of each individual child play a significant factor in the outcome. If either is skewed, the anonymity of the online world offers a safe-haven for retreat from social judgement, as well as entire subcultures handcrafted to validate and reinforce those skewed self-images and worldviews. As things are, the internet poses a unique challenge to progressive societies based on fundamental rights of free speech, assembly, and due process. The price of these liberties in the digital world is the preservation of all that which decent society repudiates in the physical world. Legal concepts such as jurisdiction, clear and present danger, and reasonable expectation of privacy, which were conceived to protect the rights of the innocent, are often weaponized, or at least conscripted, by the guilty, and thus their usefulness is nullified. While it is clear that the bulk of society’s burden must center upon the children themselves, it is becoming apparent that society must also find ways to improve the laws, and maybe even modify how the internet itself operates. Like a fire triangle, the most sophisticated solution must address all three elements of the problem.
The purpose of this paper was to better understand the phenomenon of cyberbullying. The research indicates that cyberbullying is facilitated by both inherent anonymity and access to global audiences. This is as true for children as it is for extremist groups. In all cases, there exist demonstrable relationships between online behavior and offline behavior. A bully is a bully is a bully. Whether on social media or a sidewalk, abusive behavior negatively impacts the self-mages and worldviews of children. Some bullies operate alone, others need to organize around manifestos, outward symbols, and notions of perceived enemies. Some bullies target children. Others target entire ethnicities, faiths, or even genders (and some target all three). Organizations tend to fall among the latter group of bullies, and thus require resources in the form of labor and capital. The research does not indicate that bullies share any specific universal traits or characteristics, owing most likely to the possibility that there are none.
All children are vulnerable to predators, perhaps some more than others. The research does indicate that parents and educators, as well as law makers, software developers, and enforcement agencies all play critical roles in the global contest against bullies of all shapes and sizes. It is not clear whether any causal link between childhood bullying and adult extremism has ever or will ever be discovered, but it is certain that extremist groups believe children are their future, and it is also probably true that the solutions to cyberbullying and the solutions to online extremism are necessarily similar. Communities may someday discover that these fights are one and the same, and that successes on either front will yield successes on the other. In the interim, scholars must continue to assess the impact of cyberbullying on children’s lives, monitor the spread of extremism on the internet, and labor to find ways to reduce both.
It is possible, probable in fact, that some sacrifices will have to be made, either in children’s access to technology, or in jurisdictional barriers, or even in some fundamental rights themselves, or all of these, before society is capable of effectively mobilizing a solvent response to the problem of cyberbullying. Such sacrifices will not be rendered spontaneously by an uninformed electorate, and therefore the presence or absence of persuasive political leadership will ultimately be a determining factor in this contest. Continued research on the subject is necessarily a vital component of any strategy that seeks to raise awareness and garner support for the global effort to eliminate bullying and violent extremism. Scholars have a mandate to inform policy makers and the public. However, ultimate responsibility inevitably rests with the individual. Bullying is a choice. Bullying is harmful. And bullying is bullying, no matter where or by whom. People can learn and be taught how not to be victims. They must also learn and be taught how to not be bullies.
Akcinaroglu, Seden; and Efe Tokdemir. “To Instill Fear or Love: Terrorist Groups and the Strategy of Building Reputation,” Conflict Management & Peace Science, vol. 35, no. 4, July 2018, pp. 355-377.
Hanna, Julian. “Future Shock: Manifestos in the Digital Age,” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019.
Olweus, Dan. “Cyberbullying, an Overrated Phenomenon?” European Journal of Psychological Development, vol. 9, no. 5, 2012, pp. 520-538.
Seiler, Steven J.; and Jordana J. Navarro. “Bullying on the Pixel Playground: Investigating Risk Factors of Cyberbullying at the Intersection of Children’s Online-Offline Social Lives,” Cybercryptology, vol. 8, no. 4, 2014, pp. 37-52
Wong, Meghan A.; and Richard Frank. “The Supremacy of Online White Supremacists- an Analysis of Online Discussions by White Supremacists,” Information & Communications Technology Laws, vol. 24, no. 1, March 2015, pp. 41-73.