A Look at Cyber-harassment and Our Responsibility

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”    George Washington

Although it is not enshrined in our Australian Constitution, as it is in the First Amendment in the United States, the right to “free speech” is regarded as a most fundamental and inherent right for all in this country.  It is at the very core of civil liberty in any democratic society.

The Australian Government lists Freedom of Speech as one of “Five Fundamental Freedoms” to which all Australians are entitled, and, our government aligns to many international agreements and covenants on the matter.  We cry out if such a right is threatened or violated, and rightly so.  Such expression is in itself, an exercise of our fundamental right, a right we clearly know should never be suppressed or gagged, for we live under no authoritarian regime.

Within the government’s statement on Freedom of Speech, it is also said that, “We do not censor the media…”  Clearly, there is no question that a free press/media is an inherent and essential part of this picture.

Lord Justice Leveson, in his report released last week in the UK, stated [1]:

“…the press is given significant and special rights…  With these rights, however, come responsibilities to the public interest:  to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals.” 

Leveson speaks of one essential aspect of what our fundamental right to “free speech” is truly about – an aspect also stated clearly in our “Five Fundamental Freedoms”, and that is:

“…the intention must be constructive, not to do harm.”

In short, there is a responsibility in the way we exercise this freedom.  This responsibility can be applied to all forms of media, including social media and on the Internet, and indeed to our everyday interactions – to the best of our ability.  Everyone with a sound mind, and open heart, knows this.  It’s quite simple, really.

Just what exactly is going on then, when so many who are clearly causing great harm, then utilise “free speech” as their justification for their ill and damaging behaviours?  God forbid we repress the “right to free speech” of an Internet troll, such as Violentacrez for example.  God forbid we might say it’s “not ok” for him to set up sites such as “Creepshots”, “Niggerjailbait” and “Chokeabitch” on the infamous Reddit forum.  God forbid his “fundamental right” is suppressed!

But seriously, it is clear that the true meaning and intention that underpins “freedom of expression” has been bastardised, the real crux of the matter been missed, diverted from.  “Not to do harm” is essential in the context of “free speech”, and thus essential in addressing all that is going on – particularly in relation to the activities of Internet trolls, cyber-harassment (and of course, much more besides).  We need to re-establish the real and true focus here – it simply being that it’s not fundamentally “right” to harm our fellow man.  As the Australian Human Rights Commission states [2]:

“Everyone has the right to be respected, safe and free from violence, harassment and bullying.” 

It’s clear that we’ve grown well beyond “harm” being defined as simply physical injury or violation to our physical person.  We know that harm takes many forms.  What we are seeing, in the culture of cyber-harassment, stalking, bullying and the rest, are deep and insidious levels of harm, to the point of irreparable scarring and damage occurring.  We see not only physical threat, but also psychological harm, emotional harm, and many levels of mental health issues arising as a result.  We see behaviours of trolls and cyber-bullies that leave people anxious, isolated, withdrawn and scared.  Reputations are sullied – often anonymously, as is so much of this activity.  Pictures are taken and shared without our consent, children and people grieving are exploited.  We can be affected in our workplaces, school environments, and in our own homes.  We see the absolute tragedy of teenagers suiciding…  It’s an horrendous picture.

Clearly “harm” is not just done via the blow, the sword, the gun…  It is also done via the pen, and the keyboard – and it’s occurring 24/7.

We need to state categorically that none of this is “ok”, and look to responsibly addressing these pressing issues – as constituents of a democratic society.  We need to see that whilst many of these issues are “nothing new” – bullying, intimidation, perversion, and the intent to discredit good people’s reputations, have been around since time immemorial – yet what we are seeing here are behaviours having vast influence, behaviours that may once have been quite “limited” in their scope, prior to the digital age.

Conversations are, of course, being had about these pressing issues, in many sectors of our community and within our government.  People are calling for a clear response.  And yet, there appears to be much “nervousness” in respect to true steps being taken to address the scale of the problem.  The point being made here, is that in returning to the true notion of “free speech”, we can be solid and absolute in saying what is clearly not “ok” in our democratic society.  When harm is unquestionably being done, we can say, that defending it under the banner of “free speech” simply doesn’t cut it.  We can speak about this not only in regard to our own country, but indeed the global community to which we are now so intimately connected.  We can look to the sort of world we would like for our children, and the generations to come.

All our voices matter.  We can stand up on these issues, take a good look all around us, and have the conversations that need to be had – we can speak with our families, friends and neighbours, with specialists in the field, with law-makers, law enforcement and politicians.  We can look to existing legislation and also to what may be needed, along with how we enforce and support it.  The media-saturated culture in which we live is not going to go away.  Let’s look to responsible ways forward, and with each other, rekindle the flame that knows how to say, “It’s not ok”.  We needn’t be led “dumb and silent” (to revisit the opening quote).  Our voices can be heard.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has
.”

Margaret Mead ~ as quoted on the RMRC homepage

You are invited to be a part of the ongoing conversations that need to be had – via your attendance at the upcoming Real Media Real Change Conference on Cyber-harassment in our Communities:  Addressing Public Safety in the Digital Age held on Friday 14th December at SCU, Lismore

It’s free of charge, and welcomes many highly esteemed and deeply committed speakers, bringing a wealth of understanding and experience to the issue of Cyber-harassment.  Register now.

If you’d like to be notified of future RMRC posts and events, please register on our website. 

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[1] The Leveson Inquiry:  An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press – Executive Summary, The Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson, November 2012, [British] Crown, p.4.

[2] Cyberbullying, Human rights and Bystanders, Australian Human Rights Commission website,