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Social Media Bullies

The Internet is a funny place; it’s part news, discussion, encyclopaedic entries, fluffy animals and random musings. As far I think, the tumultuous combination of all of these elements makes cyberspace a cool place to hang out.  There’s just one tiny problem. It gives everyone a god complex. We’re all allowed to say what we want, even when no-one asked. Many of us also think that there aren’t any repercussions to what we do or say online, even though we’re warned repetitively not to put drunken photos, naked videos, or any other socially awkward moments online. And yet, many people still continue to push the boundaries.  We just need to consider the furore surrounding Pretoria University’s ‘blackface’ students to remember that everything we put online is in the public arena and can be used by anyone, anywhere, for good or bad reasons.


Yesterday, I was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty tweets and it’s forced me to consider what to do next.  Even more problematically is that it involves a student.   Initially, I laughed and thought just forget it.  One of my colleagues however, said I should sue the offender for defamation.  One of my followers came to my defence and was told to ‘fuck off’. And me? I was told to ‘go and kill myself’ (just to clarify, I hadn’t responded to any of the original tweets). After all of this, I began to wonder, should I out them, so to speak? Should I report them to management? How does one respond to something like this?

In case you think I’m being melodramatic, here’s the exchange. I’ve blocked out student’s personal info because I don’t think identifying them serves a purpose.

twitter exchange1

Luckily, I’ve got a pretty thick skin. I teach, so I’m used to students being nasty, but this seems a little different. Firstly, it’s ‘out there’, and you never know who could read it and how they’d respond to someone implying that you’re a racist. It could cost me a job one day. And just imagine if the roles were reversed and I’d said this to a black student. It would definitely cost me my reputation, a lot of respect and possibly give me a criminal record.  And all thanks to someone who’s had a two second interaction with you on Twitter.

Secondly, using a homophobic slur and being part of an institution that prides itself on being inclusive is problematic. What if this behaviour extends beyond social media into something more sinister on campus?  Isn’t it my responsibility as a senior student to report this type of behaviour? And finally, what if I took the whole killing myself thing seriously? There are cases where families have sought damages and pressed charges against cyber-bullies for encouraging this type of thing. Does this student understand the real-life consequences of advocating suicide to others? I wouldn’t stand for one of my students telling another student in class something like this, so why should it be acceptable in cyberspace?

I’m still thinking about what to do, but in the meantime, I thought I’d invoke my own god complex, write this piece, include the offending conversation and let the Internet have its say. I’m also considering posting an open letter to the student to see what happens. But maybe that’s just trying to rock the boat a little too hard?


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