September 19, 2020

NPR Gets it Wrong on the Rutgers Tragedy: Cyberbullying is Unique

On Saturday, NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered ran a story by Elizabeth Blair called “Public Humiliation: It’s Not The Web, It’s Us” [transcript]. The story purported to examine the phenomenon of internet-mediated public humiliation in the context of last weeks tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who was secretly filmed having a sexual encounter in his dorm room. The video was redistributed online by his classmates who created it. The story is heartbreaking to many locals who have friends or family at Rutgers, especially to those of us in the technology policy community who are again reminded that so-called “cyberbullying” can be a life-or-death policy issue.

Thus, I was disappointed that the All Things Considered piece decided to view the issue through the lens of “public humiliation,” opening with a sampling of reality TV clips and the claim that they are significantly parallel to this past week’s tragedy. This is just not the case, for reasons that are widely known to people who study online bullying. Reality TV is about participants voluntarily choosing to expose themselves in an artificial environment, and cyberbullying is about victims being attacked against their will in the real world and in ways that reverberate even longer and more deeply than traditional bullying. If Elizabeth Blair or her editors had done the most basic survey of the literature or experts, this would have been clear.

The oddest choice of interviewees was Tavia Nyong’o, a professor of performance studies at New York University. I disagree with his claim that the TV show Glee has something significant to say about the topic, but more disturbing is his statement about what we should conclude from the event:

“[My students and I] were talking about the misleading perception, because there’s been so much advances in visibility, there’s no cost to coming out anymore. There’s a kind of equal opportunity for giving offense and for public hazing and for humiliating. We should all be able to deal with this now because we’re all equally comfortable in our own skins. Tragically, what Rutgers reveals is that we’re not all equally comfortable in our own skins.

I’m not sure if it’s as obvious to everyone else why this is absolutely backward, but I was shocked. What Rutgers reveals is, yet again, that new technologies can facilitate new and more creative ways of being cruel to each other. What Rutgers reveals is that although television may give us ways to examine the dynamics of privacy and humiliation, we have a zone of personal privacy that still matters deeply. What Rutgers tells us is that cyberbullying has introduced new dynamics into the way that young people develop their identities and deal with hateful antagonism. Nothing about Glee or reality TV tells us that we shouldn’t be horrified when someone secretly records and distributes video of our sexual encounters. I’m “comfortable in my own skin” but I would be mortified if my sexual exploits were broadcast online. Giving Nyong’o the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his quote was taken out of context, or perhaps he’s just coming from a culture at NYU that differs radically from the experience of somewhere like middle America, but I don’t see how Blair or her editors thought that this way of constructing the piece was justifiable.

The name of the All Things Considered piece was, “It’s Not The Web, It’s Us.” The reality is that it’s both. Humiliation and bullying would of course exist regardless of the technology, but new communications technologies change the balance. For instance, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has observed how digital technologies are uniquely invasive, persistent, and distributable. Pew has also pointed out (as have many other experts) that computer-mediated communications can often have the effect of disinhibition — making attackers comfortable with doing what they would otherwise never do in direct person-to-person contact. The solution may have more to do with us than the technology, but our solutions need to be informed by an understanding of how new technologies alter the dynamic.