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Wake-up call on social media bullying

Many social media users are unaware of how personal data is used by big tech companies (image/Wikimedia Commons).

Dr Kevin Veale

Social media platforms are largely indifferent to harassment and online bullying, reflecting the culture of entitled white males who create and profit from them, says a Massey University media studies specialist.

Ahead of Pink Shirt Day this Friday to encourage people to make a stand bullying, Dr Kevin Veale shared his research findings in a  public lecture, How Social Media Companies Profit from Racism, Abuse and Harassment. It was part of a five-part lunchtime series in Wellington titled, ‘Responses to terrorism in New Zealand’, hosted by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

His views capture concerns that have prompted a gathering of world leaders in Paris this week, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in collaboration with French President Emmanuel Macron, to legislate for changes to deter the spread of extremism and hate speech online following the Christchurch mosque killings in which 51 people were killed. Footage of the murders was livestreamed on Facebook.

Contrary to what some believe, social media platforms are not neutral. They exist to profit off content from – and connections between – humans using their service, says Dr Veale. “Philosophically, they assume nobody gets worse harassment than the average straight/cisgendered/white/dude. As such, they don’t consider how their setup can be used as tools for harassment.”

He says such companies are unmotivated to care unless harassment impacts their financial bottom-line. “And often harassment can make a profit, and become just another way of making money off people using their services.”

One example he cites involves Twitter versus France and Germany. “By local law, Twitter is required to filter and block Nazi content in Germany and France. Thus, they're capable of applying a global filter, but did extra work in order to say that Nazis were invisible in France and Germany, but visible everywhere else. Why would they do that? Because they profit from Nazi content and harassment.”

Profiting from harassment 

He thinks people should be more aware of the profit-driven aspect integral to the success of social media sites. “Everything that we do is worth money to someone, somewhere. Who we connect with, what we write about, how often we use the service – even unwritten posts and email. Social media companies drink this stuff in constantly. It is their reason for existence.”

He says inherent biases in technology and social media companies stem from the fact that; “A lot of the internet’s conceptual foundation came from (white, male, straight, cisgendered) countercultural and libertarian activists. They tend to see any social problems as technological problems which need technological solutions to fix, and to assume that everyone is as safe in an online space as a white, straight, male, cisgendered, anonymous person would be.”

However, people who are “identifiably not some combination of straight/cisgendered/white/dudes get harassed online. The numbers are hugely out of proportion, it’s not even close.”

“Harassers can target people individually, but often work as part of harassment communities. These have always existed but have recently been more visible.”

Different platforms arrange themselves differently, which means harassment changes in different contexts. Also, there is often limited ability to ‘get away’ from harassing content, he adds.

Any advice for the average punter on social media? Dr Veale recommends using platforms that don't harvest data and focus on treating the users as customers.

“There are not many examples and the ones which do exist are not big or high profile. Dreamwidth is a blogging platform similar to Livejournal rather than social media, and Pillowfort is structurally similar to Tumblr. They both offer products for sale to their users to upgrade their accounts and functionality, and don't harvest data.”

How to combat bullying

And for people using social media for business and marketing? “Firstly, make sure your employer has a robust and supportive policy for handling online harassment WHEN it happens, together with basic stress, and look after yourselves,” Dr Veale says.  “Beyond that, expand into social media channels that offer users more control and safety in parallel to the higher profile ones. If you want outreach, acknowledging that not everybody is safe inside the major ecosystems means you can reach demographics who aren't/can't-be as active within them.”

“Tech companies need to understand and apply basic ethical thinking, and governments need more ability to regulate - but since they don't have the capacity or the political will to tax big corporations like social media giants, that seems unlikely.”

Upcoming topics in the lecture series (1pm: St Andrews Church, 30 The Terrace, Wellington)

  • Self Care Community Care: Dr Maureen Mooney (28 May) 
  • Is banning the manifesto of the alleged Christchurch gunman warranted?: Nicola Macaulay) (11 June).


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