Twitter Bullies

Well, it finally happened. I met my very first cyber-bully.

Many of us remember bullies from grade or high school. Growing up, we all get more or less solid training expressing frustration with others. Parents are our first model in metabolizing anger, and then come teachers and peers.

What most of us learn, in our earliest years, is how to tell someone that they did something that bothered or hurt us and why.

Along the way, we notice an interesting group of people. These are the people who get furious with you when you tell them they did something wrong. While nobody likes to be told they bothered someone, this group of people responds with particular outrage: how dare you tell me I bothered or hurt you. You wimp! Now you’re really going to get it from me.

And then you get the abuse. Insults, threats, intrusions, unwanted contact…anything, it seems, in the attempt to intimidate you, get you to back off, or show you they are far more powerful and important than you.

So what happened? You just told them they did something wrong or that you didn’t like. Why didn’t they just say sorry, or even “no, don’t think what I did was wrong, and here’s why.”

What happened is you humiliated them, usually but not always in front of a crowd (often a gang) whose regard means as much to them as your parent’s, family’s, or significant other’s love regard means to you.

Here’s a common but by no means exclusive possibility. You didn’t know this (now that you do, you’ll probably be more careful), but when you took them to task for doing something they probably know is wrong, unwise, or ill-advised, you took them back to a horrible place. This is a place they may have long forgotten (or just long to forget) where they were the ones on the receiving end of criticism, yelling, teasing, exposure, shame, intrusion, threats, or even physical violence.

Truth is, many bullies live in deep, close, and intimate knowledge of what it means to feel inadequate, worthless, and powerless. When you cross them, it becomes your turn to find out exactly what it is (or was) like to be them.

For a number of reasons I tried to explain elsewhere, communication here has to be inductive rather than discursive. That is to say, it usually works better in these situations to help someone feel something rather than (just) telling them how they made you feel.

So now you’re going to get attacked, verbally or physically, but always emotionally. You’re going to get picked on, taunted, bullied, harassed, or even assaulted.

The luckier folks with this background learn to put those painful feelings to words, music, or art. The unluckier ones are left with using whatever means at their disposal (usually fists or words) to let you know just how much it hurt them to be told they hurt you.

If you have the presence of mind to say, “whoa, I just told you I take issue with something you’re doing and now you’re calling me an X, Y, and Z,” they’ll invariably say “no, you started it.” In a certain sense they’re right, in that you inadvertently exposed a strong vulnerability. But when you step back and compare what you did with what you got in return, you’re left scratching your head.

Many of us know the eggshell feeling we have around certain bosses, partners, and workmates. We can easily feel controlled by their volatility, but my sense has always been they’re not out to control us so much as stabilize a very vulnerable and precarious self-regard.

Put another way: if the thermostat in your car is broken, and the heat or air conditioning kicks on hard at the worst possible times, you’re going to have strong feelings about a passenger touching the controls, opening a window, or even complaining about the temperature.

Self-esteem is a little bit like the ambient air: when it’s doing its job, we don’t notice it, but once there’s a sudden change in temperature, pressure, odor, or oxygen level, we feel it. And we’ll go to great lengths to correct the situation, regardless of how little or differently the situation seems to be affecting others.

These days on twitter, the cyber-bullies I see the most are the ones who’ve developed a strong sense of loyalty to a politician or even another tweeter. When you say something critical of the beloved leader, you threaten the glue that holds the group together.

You don’t usually hear, “hey, you got your facts wrong, and here are the right ones,” or “what you said is inaccurate, unfair, or untrue.” What you get instead is “oh yeah? Well this is what you do that makes you an even worse person!” or just the far more economical “you’re an asshole!”

You don’t typically get engagement on the issues, because that’s not where these folks live. They don’t inhabit a world of issues to be discussed, so much as personalities to be protected: at all costs, against all enemies, foreign and especially domestic.

They may or may not use military or totalitarian language approvingly to describe their paramount virtue: loyalty to a beloved leader experienced as extraordinarily vulnerable to criticism.

My sense is that the leader is question is often far more tolerant (or even welcoming) of criticism that the loyal devotee. I also suspect that loyalty here doesn’t mean fidelity (as in to principles) so much as a promise: never, ever to hurt the beloved, and to gang up as quickly and fiercely as possible on those perceived to be a threat to the cohesion or self-esteem of the group.

Why, you ask. Why is this discussion for you about the NDAA, health care, abortion, or the best ways to get out the vote, and why is it for them about what an awful, rotten person you are? In more general terms, why is this conversation, for you, about what’s being said whereas for them it’s all about you?

Well, truth is, we don’t always know. And that’s something important to say in the context of this article, so let me emphasize it. We can and often do speculate about what goes on in someone’s head, but they’re the ultimate authority with regard to what happened to them, what they feel, or how they think.

Be open to the possibility (if you’re lucky and the winds are right) that someone may inform you that you’ve got your facts or narrative all wrong. Let them surprise you and display some non-bullying behaviors. They may, for example, tell you precisely where and how your understanding is in error, without insults or invective.

You should also be prepared for it to get ugly. For some, the Rubicon has been crossed the moment (they think) you’ve called them a thug or bully, and there’s just no going back from there. Not that you’ve got them all wrong and here is how, no: you insulted them, grievously, and now you’re going to pay.

In general, I think, people who are not (afraid they are) bullies tend to respond with confusion or bewilderment and then clarification when accused of bullying. I also think people who have been accused of this before are more likely to retaliate instead.

Like me, you may have also seen people getting threatened in addition to insulted. It’s important to note that, to my estimation, no political party or other group has (yet) cornered the market on bullying behavior.

My advice if and when you find these folks is much the same as if you bumped into them outside of twitter: leave them alone. This doesn’t mean letting them intimidate you or stop you from speaking out as best you can on things that matter to you. It means give them as wide a berth as possible when they float into your timeline.

If you follow someone who RTs the bully a lot, consider muting or even unfollowing them. If you unfollow, be prepared for some anger if this is perceived as a hostile attack rather than wish for relief. Expect retaliation if the individual in question identifies as part of the bully’s gang.

When a Twitter bully does something you disagree with, consider carefully how directly you want to say so and why. If they engage you, be clear about your twitter rules (mine include no verbal abuse) and politely decline (no matter what you want to say back!) their invitation to make the exchange about persons rather than issues.

Realize that even though you always could have chosen better words, there’s probably little chance you could have escaped their wrath for calling them on some misbehavior.

If you decide to engage them, be prepared for all labels, descriptions and accounts (regardless of their intentions) to become names, and for all names to be hurtful; that’s just their world. They typically blame their anger on others, and you may even be held fully responsible for their choice of words and tactics.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend this.

My best advice is to wish them well, as this is not only the right thing to do but often has the side benefit of disarming them (if you’re extremely lucky, a bully will be touched enough by your kindness to convert their contempt for you to respect on the spot). Most bullies aren’t used to being treated with genuine respect, to say nothing of kindness; by the time they realize you’re not engaging them in the typical way, you already have a great chance to head for the exit.

If they follow you and chase you, consider a firm request to go away or unfollow. Or you can block them.

I’ve rarely seen bullies persist after that, but it’s always possible. If so, consider reaching out to friends who’ve dealt with these exact or similar people before, or have a look at many of the wonderful online resources now available on bullying and cyber-bullying.

Oh, and good luck. Despite the bullying and other inconveniences, Twitter remains an intriguing world for the social explorer. 🙂