Trolls, Cyber-Bullies, and Other Misfortunes of Social Media

I love YouTube videos and have wasted countless hours watching videos of people pranking each other and the cockpit action during take-offs and landings.  However, beyond the time wasting potential, there is a serious downside to our prolific sharing. These days just about anything we do has the possibility to end up posted online for the world to see. 

I saw the recent viral YouTube video of a young Miami neurology resident taken while she was on a drunken rampage with an Uber driver who was refusing to carry her as a passenger (I’m deliberately not linking to this video in order to preserve the young woman’s dignity).  Without a doubt, her actions were ridiculous and abusive towards the driver.  According to an ABC news story, the video has now been viewed more than 5 million times.  During an interview with ABC News she told about the vicious cyber-attacks she’s now suffered, of the death threats, the comments that she should be raped, that her family is now fearful because their address has been publically leaked and they have also been threatened.

Accusation guilty person. Sad upset woman looking down many fingers pointing at her backThis reminded me of a recent NPR This American Life Podcast that I listened to in which another woman, writer Lindy West, who writes about feminist issues, spoke about the cyber-bullying and troll attacks that are inflicted upon her anonymously through social media. In her case, one troll went so far as to impersonate her recently deceased father online and use that false persona to insult and denigrate her in online social media postings.

Now, at first glance, you might think that there is a distinct difference between the condemnation of a drunk woman acting badly and the online stalking and abuse of a woman who simply writes articles that challenge our ideas about gender, beauty, and politics, but I don’t think the difference is as great we might try to make it out to be.

Yes, the drunk woman was acting badly. She herself admits that her behavior was inexcusable and that she has made amends with the Uber driver she abused (I would note that he refused to press charges against her).  She has been suspended from her training pending an investigation and her biography and images have been removed from the websites of her medical school and residency program. She has taken down her social media profiles which were flooded with condemning comments from viewers of the video.

In her interview on ABC she asks for forgiveness from the larger public, although I’m not clear how it’s any of the public’s business at this point.  However, she continues to suffer from calls that she is forever unfit to practice medicine, and that she should be killed or raped.  People who have never encountered her as a physician have flooded the online rating systems to basically trash her online ratings.  She now has to live with the fear that this YouTube video that captured just a few brief moments of her life will come to define her as a person and haunt her for the rest of her life.   

When I view the video, I see something that is all too familiar to me.  The pressure on young physicians, especially those who are in their residency, is beyond extreme.  Residency training programs are often inhumane and cruel, working young doctors beyond exhaustion while demanding perfection and while the young physicians deal with the most complicated and emotionally difficult medical cases.  Having worked as a nurse alongside residents and being married to a physician, I have seen the mental and physical toll their residency programs take on their lives.  Young physicians are ripe for substance abuse problems, depression, and other forms of stress-induced physical and mental illnesses.  When I view the video, I don’t see an evil person or someone who is unfit for a medical career.  I see a young person who drank too much and is acting badly.  Does she have a drinking problem?  Maybe, but she will need to determine that for herself along with those who know her much better than I do.

What I do know is that the connection between the drunk physician and Lindy West, is the people who anonymously, feel that they somehow have the right to abuse another human being, based upon whatever justification they make up for themselves and the websites that profit from their activities. The anonymous trolls and internet bullies reduce their victims to a single dimension upon which they feel entitled to pass judgment.  They become judge, jury, and executioner with near impunity, and in the most vicious ways possible.  In a disproportionate number of cases their victims are women.

What is most sad, and often overlooked, is that our most vulnerable and imperfect moments can be stolen from us simply by someone with a cell phone who takes a video and uploads it to a public site where it then becomes a commercial product where others to profit from our shame and misfortune. Social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, newspapers that allow article comments, and the multitude of internet quasi-journalists all compete for clicks that sell advertising dollars. Too often, these clicks are derived from the selling of another’s shame story or the invitation to torment an innocent person.  

American laws have not yet caught up with the internet and social media.  In much of the world people have the right to have embarrassing content removed, especially when it is old content that no longer represents the person.  The idea is that privacy includes the right to have one’s past forgotten.  American law does not provide us such a right.  Perhaps it’s because, as a society, we Americans seem to have given up on the idea of redemption and the possibility of change.  That’s too bad really.  I think we’re all diminished without the hope that we can be a better person tomorrow than we are today.