Fiddle Faddle is a retired bloke with a bit of time on his hands. He has a disgust and horror for the rash of young people's suicides triggered in part by cyberbullying and knows that Wikipedia can play its part by showing editors how to behave if they spot cyberbullying here
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds at our opinion desk.
As a social media institution, one that has encouraged user participation, discussion, and even argument, for years, Wikipedia has excellent policies and guidelines, usually well enforced, for civility between editors, and for the harassment of editors by other editors. We know and accept this as we learn to edit Wikipedia and learn how to behave here. We're proud of it and the overwhelming majority of us stay withinn 'the rules' at almost all times.
What is less well known is that people use our pages to harass and bully people who are not even editors here. We do not, yet, have a widely accepted way of handling this unpleasant event, save for removing it as vandalism, something that is fine insofar as the harassment is removed, but not always fine in that it only treats the matter as simple vandalism. What we do not know is the effect that this has on the person being harassed out in the real world. And this can turn into a significant issue if we do not handle it well and sensitively. And that issue is termed cyberbullying. At Wikipedia we have not been good, historically, at identifying and therefore at dealing with, the cyberbullying of non Wikipedians by the use of Wikipedia as a tool to bully with.
We never know when cyberbullying becomes problem until it is too late and it causes sufficient stress in the target to drive them, perhaps, to suicide. Recently there has been the high profile suicide of the Canadian schoolgirl, Amanda Todd, with an accompanying video, no less, that shows her state of mind shortly before she took her life. She was not the first child to feel trapped by cyberbullies and she will not be the last.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying takes many forms. Succinctly, it is the singling out of an individual for name calling or other inappropriate victimisation and publishing this in an online medium. Typical online venues for publishing this style of bullying are forums, messageboards, social media sites such as Facebook and Myspace and as insidious and small snippets in organs such as Wikipedia. Those wishing to read more should read Cyberbullying
What are the results of cyberbullying?
Even a person of high self esteem is affected to some degree. Even if an episode is shrugged off, the shrugging of it off is a conscious act. Those with low self esteem find such episodes hard, perhaps impossible to shrug off. The ultimate result is a lowering of self esteem leading to depression, self harm and, in extreme cases, suicide.
How does it exhibit itself in Wikipedia?
On Wikipedia this usually appears as what we perceive to be vandalism in pretty much any article at all. As Wikipedia:Cyberbullying explains, the victim, whom we refer to as John Victim, is referred to in drive by attacks in articles on Wikipedia, such as "John Victim is GAY!" Such drive by comments are particularly hurtful to a child whose emerging sexuality of any sort is overrun by the hormone rush of puberty, and especially hurtful to a male child whose environment emphasises rugged hetero-normative masculinity. John Victim may be the most masculine and heterosexual of his age group, but that does not prevent his feeling victimised, downtrodden and bullied, if his state of mind is such that he is likely to feel this way.
This bullying is not limited to simple taunts of this nature, as editors who patrol for vandalism will attest. Many and varied odd messages about people are inserted into articles about named individuals, nor is it at all limited to taunts about being sexually different. Weight, intelligence, dress sense, and even simple likeability are all grist to the bullies' mill.
The likelihood is that the message is crafted during class, saved, and the article pased around form kid to kid in a hushed whisper before John Victim sees it and is upset by it. As Wikipedia:Cyberbullying says, we do not know the state of John Victim's mind nor his circumstances. One person's reaction is to laugh about horseplay, another's is to become seriously upset by it.
How does this differ from simple vandalism?
At the ordinary Wikipedia level it does not. We are, historically, concerned with articles, not with people. Our concern is to remove uncited or libellous or irrelevant statements from articles, and to mov on, knowing we have been productive in Wikipedia terms. It is vandalism, and it has been removed.
The difference is that this vandalism attacks someone else, John Victim, someone we do not know, someone who is almost certainly not a Wikipedia editor, and someone who has no ability to defend themselves here.
We can do something to make sure the project we love, Wikipedia, has the tools at its disposal to minimise cyberbullying. And that is the purpose of Wikipedia:Cyberbullying.
But we have things to stop editors from being harassed
Oddly, whenever cyberbullying in Wikipedia is mentioned, half the people who see that equate it only with the harassment of an eidtor by another editor, and consider the case closed because we have many and useful internal tools here.
Those are great and they work, mostly, because we agree to be civil to editors here and we assume good faith about everyone else, usually, and we have areas where we can sort out disputes of all kinds. But what we do not yet have is any formalisation apart from this essay on what do do when those who are not Wikipedians are harassed and bullied here.
So this is about bullying non-Wikipedians?
Yes! Those not part of our community have no real protection here, read the essay and you'll see some of the ways that those who aren't even editors here can be got at using Wikipedia as a bullying tool.
Is it widespread?
How do we know? No-one keeps any sort of records. We usually treat it as vandalism and zap it on sight. And that's great. Do you know a way, perhaps by using a bot of identifying some sort of widespread victimisation of someone? If you do then Wikipedia:Cyberbullying need your input.
It certainly isn't as widespread as on, say, Facebook, a site where there are often great concerns about harassment, victimisation, and bullying, where even Facebook administrators battle to keep it under control, no it isn't. But it is here.
What do we do next?
This is where Wikipedia:Cyberbullying comes in. If it is unclear, incomplete, or in any way ambiguous or ineffective, then it should be edited.
Should it be a policy? Should it be a guideline? Should it be simply an essay known about and referred to by many? Does it contain the correct material?
Only you can judge, because this is your community, and that is why it's here, in Signpost, to ask you to read, to be aware, and to help.
Is it compulsory to act when you see or suspect cyberbullying?
Of course not. You may not have the time to do it or the desire to do it. And that's absolutely fine, and there is no guilt associated with not acting. But, if you want to act, then Wikipedia:Cyberbullying is designed to give you the route. And you can and should be involved in designing the route and choosing the level of policy-ness, guideline-ness or essay-ness for this.