School Climate & Safety

Cyberbullying: What Schools Can Learn From Leslie Jones’ Twitter Harassment

By Evie Blad — July 22, 2016 4 min read
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Ghostbusters star and Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones took a break from Twitter this week after an ad hoc internet mob harassed her with racist and sexist messages, overwhelming her online. Jones spent a day retweeting the hurtful posts to draw attention to the issue, calling it her “personal hell.”

While the experiences of a movie star may seem far from the things educators deal with every day, I think Jones’ story offers some important lessons for schools, which are increasingly being asked to deal with cyberbullying and online harassment of students.

After Montana adopted its anti-bullying law last year, every state in the country now has one. Those laws generally require school districts to set policies for tracking and quickly responding to incidents of bullying. And nearly all of them require schools to address “electronic” forms of bullying or “cyberbullying.”

But that is often easier said than done: Bullying online can often occur outside of school hours, creating free-speech concerns. And educators and administrators may have a hard time keeping up with the social media platforms and habits of their students.

I’ll leave it to the experts to determine whether Jones’ experience meets the technical definition of bullying or whether it qualifies as a different category of harassment. In the mean time, here are a few things schools can learn from it that may apply to their anti-bullying work.

Cyberbullying Often Occurs on Multiple Platforms

Twitter eventually responded to Jones’ situation by taking the unusual step of permanently banning Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. But that move came after Jones expressed frustration at the lack of action by the social media website.

The problem? Though hundreds of people were sending hurtful public messages to the star, it was unclear who had initiated them. Yiannopoulos, known as a “troll” on Twitter, didn’t appear to be sending any of the tweets.

However, NPR reported that according to other Twitter users, “Yiannopoulos was on two other platforms, 4chan and reddit, mobilizing against Jones, which means she and Twitter would have to go outside one social network to others to get a full picture.”

What does this mean for schools? Viewing one tweet or Facebook post in isolation may not provide a full picture of a bullying situation. Experts say bullying is a pattern of behavior, not necessarily discrete, isolated incidents. When intervening in bullying situations, it might be important for schools to ask what is driving them and if there are others involved.

Cyberbullying Mimics Face-to-Face Harassment

Many bullying experts say it’s unnecessary to draw a line between cyberbullying and old-fashioned bullying, or to define them as two separate behaviors.

That’s because, for many students, online bullying is just a continuation of the interpersonal experiences they have with their peers. The same people who call them names in class are likely following up on Facebook later.

And cyberbullying often follows patterns that are similar to in-person harassment. While we tend to think of bullying as calling people hurtful names, experts say it can also take other forms, like isolating a peer or turning social dynamics against them. In that way, what Yiannopoulos reportedly did is very similar to what some bullied students experience in school.

In 2008, the New York Times covered one such student, a Fayetteville, Ark., teen who sued his school after his peers started a Facebook group where they shared hurtful messages about him. The boy also complained about mean treatment in person, but the district later won the lawsuit.

What does the crossover nature of cyberbullying mean for schools? It means it’s probably not enough to just scrub one hurtful message off of a website without addressing the root of the behavior and without ensuring the student isn’t also being victimized in person.

Technology Moves Fast, Making it Difficult to Respond to Cyberbullying

People not only sent hurtful messages to Jones, they also used websites to create fake, offensive tweets that appeared to be sent from her account. I’d venture to guess that many school administrators aren’t aware that’s possible. I won’t share one that was sent to Jones, but here’s one I made to show you what’s possible.

As much as I like to think that Beyoncé knows who I am and prefers my coverage of school policy issues, she’s never actually tweeted about me (that I know of). This is totally fake.

The speed at which teens adopt and master new social networks and internet tricks can be dizzying, and it can make it difficult for educators to respond to reports of bullying if they occur on platforms schools aren’t familiar with. Some things school leaders may want to make themselves aware of include the growing swarm of anonymous messaging apps like Whisper, After School, and Yik Yak.

And here’s a great resource from the Cyberbullying Research Center, a list of ways to report problematic behavior on various social networks and apps.

What do you think? How should schools handle cyberbullying?

Photo: Leslie Jones, a cast member in the film “Ghostbusters,” poses backstage during a presentation at CinemaCon 2016 in Las Vegas. --Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP-File

Further reading on bullying and cyberbullying:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.