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About that: Cracking down on sites like Ask.fm

A petition landed in my inbox today: “Shut down cyberbullying website, Ask.fm, in memory of Izzy Dix & 12 other teens globally

This is, alas, another misunderstanding of how websites work, but most importantly how social interactions, in general, work. I’m not saying that anyone is at moral fault in these cases; what I am concerned about is that the petition spreads the idea that any one site should be targeted for crackdown. Politicians can jump at this easily, scapegoat easily, and look like progress is being made. This is shortsighted, and ultimately leads us to rest on laurels until the next, identical, scandal arises.

(TLDR:) In brief, it’s not a crackdown on websites we need, but action on a large scale. We must be in control of the message that society projects to young people, the message must be on every wall a young person will see, and the message must be:

If you are a victim of BULLYING, it is never your fault, and you must always SPEAK UP immediately.

Read more for details.

It’s not about any one website

The specific traits of websites used for cyberbullying are the following:

  1. You can be singled out as a target by having an open profile
  2. You can be contacted by anyone at all, without restriction

This is possible on Ask.fm, but it’s possible on MySpace, Tumblr, dating sites, web forums with private messaging… and many other less known sites.

Hell, cyberbullying happens on Twitter in the open – the mass death and rape threats against women this past year are sorry examples of this.

It’s not about any one site – having an open profile and untempered private messaging is the toxic cocktail from the technological standpoint.

But it would be entirely possible to coordinate bullying through email, posting the victim’s phone number to all participants and harassing them that way from public phone booths. Will you shut down the email provider? Will the victim have to never use a phone again?

Crackdown will lead to more victims, not less

Politicians love a scandal easy to deal with. One site has a bad rap (justly or unjustly, it doesn’t matter), the solution is clear: order ISPs to block that site. There, job done. Politician has taken a tough stance on <cybercrime>.

A few years later, another site, or venue, sees the same scenario all over again. Answer? Block that site, slap backs, cheers everybody.

Cracking down on sites that facilitate communication without carrying out the specific activites is not the answer. If the site were functionally crucial to the orchestration of a criminal activity, crackdown would probably be a good course of action.

In bullying, the only common denominator is “a method of communication.”

Awareness, support and education.

Three actions would be far more effective I believe. They are longer term, longer lasting, and deeper reaching. They require only social consensus, not policy. They require action and mobilization from us, the public.

1. Be vocal about supporting victims of bullying

In the playground and online, a regular, persistent and noticeable show of support and support avenues MUST be implemented. The more it is ingrained in young (and not not so young) persons’ minds that bullying MUST be talked about immediately, the less likely a victim is going to “tough up” and “go it alone.” Nobody should be a lone trooper in a concerted assault on their self-worth.

Even if there are few occurrences of bullying in one space like at the sports club or at school, those places MUST still raise this awareness. Because if web sites don’t do it and cannot be compelled to, somewhere has to do it.

2. Be there for victims. It is never their fault.

It is of vital importance that victims of bullying can talk to ANY figure of authority or guidance about their experience. Giving tips and advice is all very nice, but being emotionally supportive is crucial. It doesn’t matter if the person willfully went to a known bad site. It doesn’t matter that they’re easy to pick on. It doesn’t matter that the bullies knew their embarassing secret. We will not ask about that.

In aggression, it is never the victim’s fault.

They have been bullied and they did not deserve it. To say that someone deserves to be bullied or that they brought it on themselves is to say that they are ultimately unworthy of help, compassion, and of their right to express their pain.

In aggression, it is never the victim’s fault.

Many people know this. But many other people, including people in professions teachers, doctors, guardians, law enforcement and the likes, forget it. These groups specifically MUST be trained and reminded that the victim must ALWAYS be heard and NEVER dismissed.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. In aggression, it is never the victim’s fault.

3. Make sure Everyone knows that bullying is wrong

Kids will be kids, right? Kids can be cruel, right? It’s part of growing up, right?

Yes. And we must be ready for it. It is part of our role, as parents, teachers, spiritual guides, older siblings and relatives to show them that cruelty to their peers, in person or online, is destructive. Not “naughty,” not “bad,” but destructive.

We tell children once or twice when they are little to “be nice,” but we fail to continually reinforce this throughout their upbringing. It seems Aesop’s fables don’t apply after your tenth birthday. But on the contrary – they apply then more than ever, and onwards thereafter.

We tell children not to be a telltale, and we try to have them laugh off their fears, but they just get the impression that there fears are laughable and needn’t be mentioned. They grow up not knowing who to go to when they are being harassed. “I’m OK,” “it’s nothing,” “it’s just something silly.”

If you think “but surely they realize that bullying is more serious than that?” you just need to remember: several young people took their lives, and NOBODY saw it coming. The victims didn’t dare speak up.Victims need to feel they can speak up.


We cannot control what other people, other countries, other websites do. There are always ways around a shutdown.

What we must be in control of however is the message that society projects to young people, the message must be on every wall a young person will see, we need to make posters, on home printers and in school arts projects, and everyone needs to say it.

The message must be:

If you are a victim of BULLYING, it is never your fault, and you must always SPEAK UP immediately.

Posted in About that..., Ethics, Faith, Internet

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