Cybersafety - the evolution of online behaviours

“…the internet has become a “key breeding ground” for extremism and hate speech – emboldened by the increasing ease of dissemination, anonymity and, thanks to outdated legislation, a lack of meaningful consequences.”

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime

In evolutionary terms, we’re still learning the etiquette of behaviour online, and although there are opportunities for great collaboration and good, there are also behaviours being exhibited at an individual and societal level giving great cause for concern.

The human race has had thousands of years to work out how we best communicate with each other and draw our social norms. Despite this, we still make mistakes, still misunderstand or are misconstrued or don’t explain ourselves.

At the United Against Workplace Bullying conference in 2020, Dr Ian Coyne from Loughborough University spoke about the premise that in the digital world, we’ve only been learning for a number of decades. We’re basically still in the naïve stage and haven’t yet grown up and learnt how to communicate effectively online, and so mistakes are going to be made while we learn.

“We're at the stage where everyone has grown up with, or become used to, doing everything digitally now. One of the things that we discovered is that sort of more often than not the digital world was encouraging, and has encouraged, people to really miscommunicate, to say things that they don't ordinarily believe; to bully people in a way that in the real world we just wouldn't dream of doing. And it raises the question as to why and what we can do about this growing culture.”

Ian also spoke about the loss of personal identity and the taking on of a group identity as de-individuation; you become a part of the online group you’re interacting in. If that group is one that promotes being abusive, aggressive and outspoken then you're going to take on that cultural, that norm of that particular group, and it then becomes normal behaviour which isn't challenged.

We've also seen movements online like #MeToo, #TimesUp, #Black Lives Matter, that have changed that power stance completely, and have been massively empowering and it's very much changed the dynamic from someone being bullied who until recently might have thought “What can I do? How can I take on a big company? How can I take on the big boss?” to recognising that they can speak up collectively and influence change.

Ultimately, it is incredibly easy now to say something that can be misconstrued; say something that now forms part of the digital footprint. It exists; it's with you forever; it can impact on you in the future. The BBC have just recently agreed that high profile people that work with them will have to monitor their personal twitter accounts, and so we have an example there of where your personal and your professional are merging together, and anything inappropriate on your personal account can impact upon your career. More recently, England bowler Ollie Robinson was suspended from international cricket pending the outcome of an investigation into historic racist and sexist tweets.

Social media can be a fantastic tool, and it can empower somebody who is struggling, but it can also be used in a very detrimental way.

The rise and rise of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is the most rapidly growing type of bullying, and not just for children. It also infiltrates our workplaces, particularly as the boundaries between home and work life become increasingly blurred. and is increasingly also becoming a societal trend.

Deep faking. Phishing. Spear phishing. Catfishing. Cancel culture. Online hatred. Trolls. Cyberbullying Cyberstalking. Cybercrime. The list goes on…

So what is it that makes someone feel able to attack others online in ways that they probably wouldn’t in real life? How is this influencing behaviour in our workplaces?

Well, there are a number of factors at play here. Firstly, what exactly is cyberbullying? According to ACAS, it’s “any form of bullying, harassment, or victimisation online”. It can show up on any form of technology from text messages and emails to gaming and social media.

To understand cyberbullying, the first step is the need to educate ourselves about the different forms that bullying and harassment can take, and the impact that can have on both individuals and organisations. It can, and does take the form of (to name but a few):

  • Sharing inappropriate content including images

  • Public humiliation e.g. rumours and gossip on social media

  • Excessive emails at all hours

  • Copying people who don’t need the information into emails

  • Leaving you out of online communications in order to isolate you and place you at a disadvantage

  • Threats of physical violence

  • Posing as the target online and publishing defamatory posts

What makes cyberbullying different?

Whilst it could be argued that cyberbullying is the same as traditional bullying but just using technology to do so, i.e. the technology is new but the behaviours and the approach are no different, a number of speakers at our Conference in November raised considerations about the online personality.

Pete Trainor, CEO of Vala Health is the author of a book that looks at new and emerging themes in behaviours, biological changes and the way that humans interact with digital communication and frictionless interfaces. He refers to a phenomenon he calls “the secret online me” whereby people have an almost anonymised version of themselves, and whilst in some cases this resulted in positive online engagement, in others, people were doing harm, and this often followed them into the workplace as well.

“Our behaviour, because we're remote, we're anonym