Why cyber-bullying endures

Anonymous cyber-bullies have no empathy to their victims when trolling the internet.

Amanda Todd
Amanda Todd ended her life after years of relentless bullying, both physical and in cyberspace [AP]

When Amanda Todd was thirteen years old, she met a man on the internet who told her she was beautiful. He was a stranger and she was flattered by the attention. He asked her to take off her clothes, and Amanda, a seventh grader at a Canadian junior high school, flashed her breasts. He said she was “stunning” and “perfect”.

A year later, the man contacted Amanda on Facebook under a pseudonymous profile. She had never told him her name, but he knew everything about her, including her address, school and the names of her relatives and friends. He told her he would send the webcam photos to everyone she knew unless she “put on a show for him”. She refused, and soon the photo was everywhere. “I can never get that photo back. It’s out there forever,” she wrote, five weeks before she died.

On October 10, Amanda Todd committed suicide after three years of harassment from peers and strangers online. She left behind a nine-minute video describing her abuse, which, thanks to social media, had become inescapable. The video is less a documentation of violence than a documentation of documentation, cruel and cold and continual.

When Amanda was beaten and thrown into a ditch, other kids stood by and filmed it. When she tried to kill herself by drinking bleach, they posted on her Facebook page that they hoped she was dead. She switched schools, but it did not matter. “6 months has passed. I wanted to move on… people are posting pics of bleach, clorax and ditches, tagging me,” she wrote. She wondered why people continued to follow her online. She wondered why nothing ever stopped.

Amanda Todd could not see a future because her past was always her future.

 The Stream – Cyber-abuse and bullying

No escape

The case of Amanda Todd is not unique. Over the past few years many cases of cyber-bullying have made the news. Several of them, like Todd’s, revolved around the sexual proclivities of the victim. In September 2010, Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, killed himself after his roommate filmed him kissing another man and posted links to the webcam footage on Twitter. The Clementi case brought widespread attention to the bullying of gay youth. Less acknowledged was the role of the online medium, the way it makes brutal invasions of privacy permanent.

Digital memory spares no mercy. For teenagers like Amanda Todd, one regrettable decision can transform one’s life – or end it. The combination of digital media that can be cached and copied and monopoly platforms like Facebook that confine diverse social contacts into a single space has made self-reinvention almost impossible. It would be wrong to say that “the internet” killed Amanda Todd. But she died battling a version of herself that she sought desperately to escape. Her online identity was determined by others, without accountability, without remorse.

The bullying of Amanda Todd shows how online and offline behaviour are interwoven, how face-to-face cruelty slips into online performance. On the internet, the victim’s own memory of events is not the one that endures. Instead, the story is written by the tormentors, their ownership of the narrative itself a form of torment.

Amanda Todd released her video a month before she took her life. She wanted to tell her own story and create a permanent account of her experience. Since her death, the video has become popular, with many, including her mother, hoping it will inspire bullies to change their behaviour. But so far that has not happened. Within hours of its creation, an online Facebook memorial for Amanda was defaced with cruel comments and the original topless picture was reposted. “I’m so happy she’s dead now,” one of her classmates wrote. In her video, Amanda described her ordeal as “never-ending” and she was right. Even in death, there is no reprieve.

Trolling the internet

Who are the people that bullied Amanda Todd? Some of them were classmates, identified by their real names. But others remain anonymous, including the man who took her webcam photo, attempted to blackmail her, and released the half-naked images of a 13-year-old girl to the public, an act which constitutes child pornography. Attempts by Canadian police to find the man have been unsuccessful. He is used to covering his tracks, accustomed to an online environment that has proven a refuge for sociopaths.

The same week that Amanda Todd killed herself, the website Gawker unmasked one of the internet’s most notorious trolls. Michael Brutsch, who wrote under the name Violentacrez, had spent years posting pictures of scantily-clad underage girls online. According to Gawker, he had also “issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit”.

People can be forced to confront their actions, but they cannot be forced to feel ashamed.”

An unapologetic Brutsch pleaded with Gawker journalist Adrien Chen to maintain his anonymity. “I do my job, go home, watch TV, and go on the internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time,” he explained. Brutsch relied on the classic cyber-bully fallacy that his behaviour is okay because it is “just the internet”, that somehow the digital dissemination of cruel and invasive content makes it matter less.

In a sense, this phrase is right: For victims, it is just the internet – because the internet becomes everything to a person who is cyber-stalked and harassed. The internet renders their humiliations permanent, available for viewing by others whether that individual deigns to revisit them or not. There is no relief from the incessant patrolling of the digital self.

Forced to reconcile his offline reputation with his online behaviour, Michael Brutsch has become as vulnerable as his targets. Since the Gawker article was published, he appears to have lost his job. Yet he remains unrepentant, regretting only getting caught, and he has retained the loyalty of his supporters.

Even with reduced anonymity, cyber-bullying is unlikely to subside. People can be forced to confront their actions, but they cannot be forced to feel ashamed. This deficit of empathy, which endures even when its cruel consequences are revealed, is what should concern us most.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.