On rainy days (so to speak), I am a stupid old cow who is delusional about her capabilities, as she imagines she went to university yet cannot even be trusted to figure out how to operate a coffeemaker.
In January, a 12-year-old British boy called Louie Tom Fenton killed himself after prolonged bullying because he was vegan. Among other things, kids threw meat at him at school. “He loved the sea and was deeply committed to conservation, the environment and sea life.”
Adults and kids bully. There are cultural differences, but the essence of bullying seems to be the same. Why do bullies bully? In many cases, to gain significance that they apparently lack.
The significance derived from bullying has two components and here is where culture may make a bigger difference.
- Being applauded by one’s surroundings for being a bully.
- The power – physical and psychological – that comes from bullying.
If you want to change anything in society, starting with young people is often best and as bullying particularly affects children…
On Twitter, someone pointed out to me that it used to be okay for drunk people to get into their cars and drive and that this has changed. Society’s views on the acceptability of drunk driving have changed.
Now people look after each other and stop each other from getting behind the wheel when drunk. We also have designated drivers.
I was thinking that stopping bullying should begin with the parents of bullies and the staff at their schools, but if bullies bully to gain significance, chances are that the lack of significance they are feeling is connected to those parents or the school staff. (Or that their parents one way or another are teaching the bullies that bullying and ridiculing others is the only way to gain significance, for instance during their dinner table conversations, in which they talk about relatives, neighbours and colleagues.)
Focusing energy in that direction has a low chance of success.
So why don’t classes start anti-bullying teams of five or more kids who sign up to the responsibility of preventing bullying? They can function like the people who stop the drunk from getting into his or her car.
Because let’s face it, adults don’t understand much about the kind of bullying that goes on among kids and are often completely unaware of what happens in digital media. Peers have much better access to that, and a much greater understanding, both of how it works and what the effects can be.
Depending on the culture the bullying occurs in, there can be a strong tendency to blame the targets of bullying for what is being done to them. The bullies are usually ignored, tolerated, respected or applauded. But it is the bullies who have the problem. It is the bullies who need to be stopped. (I am not sure that admonishing bullies or punishing them would solve the problem. Maybe some of them feel frustrated because of, say, undiagnosed dyslexia.)
Getting bullied is not really any different than being hit in traffic by a drunk driver. If you aren’t in a certain place at a certain time, you won’t get hit. It is the thing that sets you apart – being in a location at certain time, or being vegan – that makes you a target and that thing that sets you apart is essentially no more than the mere fact that you exist.
There is nothing wrong with existing. But there is something wrong with bullying.
So, schools, let’s get those anti-bulling teams started, shall we?
In fact, that too may give the bullies the significance they crave. Early intervention makes it possible to teach bullies that there are other, better ways to gain significance.
Of course, we only hear about the schools that are not able to get a grip on bullying. Sometimes they are hampered by the law. How do schools address bullying?
In my essay “We need to talk about this” I mention that I have on occasion been shocked by a certain brand of callousness that I have seen (too) often in Britain (both in the media and in real life). Here is one example of what I mean.
You can only justify such occurrences by applying a tweaked form of utilitarian reasoning. One person was suffering, but “wasn’t really harmed” and the number of people who were enjoying what was being done to George Cheese was greater than 1, hence these occurrences “increased overall happiness”.
The fact that utilitarianism was associated with the higher classes may have given this type of reasoning or events an unfortunate aura of “cleverness”. It could also explain why anyone who condemns the sort of things that were being done to George Cheese is seen by some as “naïve” and “not quite with it”.
Utilitarianism also attached little importance to individual persons’ rights. It would have stopped short from, say, stabbing someone like George Cheese as opposed to setting his clothes on fire and stuffing him into the trunk/boot of a car. This is the kind of background, I think, that enabled Simon Wright to say “It did not go too far.”
In reality, abuse targets like George don’t get to LIVE. All they are allowed to do is wait for their natural deaths. George Cheese said “FUCK THAT!” and stood up for himself in the only way he had left.
At least there is an inquest. That’s good.
Facebook appears to know it is in trouble over the experiment it conducted (see previous post). On CNN, I read this morning that a spokesperson said it was research “to improve our services”.
It looks like Facebook is trying to jump through hoops. But Facebook doesn’t fit through the hoops.
When users consented to their data being used to improve Facebook’s services, most users will have assumed that this referred to services provided to the users, not services Facebook provides to advertisers. (When you’re happy, you are more optimistic, hence more likely to click on advertisements. Pessimists have a more realistic view of the world than optimists, but optimists likely see themselves as more successful than pessimists.)
And when Facebook users consented to their data being used to improve the services, they sure as hell did not consent to psychological experiments being conducted on them.
They may have expected Facebook to analyse the data and make use of the results of those analyses, yes, but they were likely thinking in terms of technology or something along those lines. Upgrading server x that delivers Facebook to country y. They may also have expected to see baby products being advertised to those who clicked on such ads and posted baby pictures, and office products being shown to people who stated that they are self-employed.
Facebook tweaking the streams of users to bring them the items it thought users wanted to see, that is one thing. I can be annoyed about Facebook not showing my friends’ posts in my timeline, no matter how many boxes I tick to try and get them to show and I can be annoyed about commercial posts I get shown no matter how many boxes I tick in an attempt to get rid of posts about products I cannot even buy because I am many miles away on the other side of the world, but that is an entirely different ballpark compared with Facebook deliberately tweaking the streams of users to make them feel happy or make them feel miserable, or even attempting to see whether it can or not.
Facebook – and the two university researchers along with it – has crossed a line, again. This time, Facebook has made an unforgivable mistake.
It is true that other media manipulate us all the time. But we expect that. We know that the BBC only reports what it wants to report and does not present an objective overview of society. We know that commercials feed us bullshit, that buying that car or buying that dress or perfume won’t make glamorous models suddenly find us irresistible. And I know that when CNN – CNN Money, that is – writes that “it does not appear that Facebook faces any legal implications”, CNN is trying to manipulate its audience too.
That does not apply when it comes to messages from our friends. It may still be true that we have one or two friends – or children – who may consciously or subconsciously try to manipulate us, but when it comes to messages our friends post combined, we do not expect those messages to be manipulated by a third party in such a way that we become happier. And we certainly don’t expect our Facebook streams to be manipulated to make us miserable.
Facebook could have conducted this experiment equally well after explaining what it wanted to do and allowing users informed consent. It chose not to.
The US Army provided some of the funding for this experiment. That does not help.
I have meanwhile realised how Facebook may be able to get away with this in a court of law. Facebook could claim that it was carrying out this experiment because it was concerned about the number of suicides and other problems precipitated by bullying on Facebook. It could say that it was trying to figure out how it could tweak the streams of its users to prevent such problems for its users. Unless some whistleblower provides evidence to refute this, that might very well work.