I originally was going to write a blog post today about the law being debated in the UK that would force social media platforms to disclose user information if served with a complaint. Failure to do so would make the platform liable for the statement itself, a clever way of shifting burdens to hopefully make platforms more responsive to these claims (unlike the less than clever burden shifting Malaysia did recently that won’t be as helpful). The law is being discussed in the wake of a particularly nasty case of cyberbullying. A woman posted an innocent message in support for a reality TV contestant and she became the target for some trolls. First they posted nasty responses, then they escalated to posts on her wall, then they created fake profiles under her name to continue to post offensive messages and content. That kind of one-sided attack is an easy case where we can point to one party (or group0 and safely say they were cyberbullies.
But then several people sent me links about the ongoing case of The Oatmeal and it made me stop and think: can both sides of a dispute be a cyberbully? And, in this case, is The Oatmeal a cyberbully?
We first discussed this last week when The Oatmeal publicly responded to the legal threat they had received. That story has continued to develop. First, Scribd has a copy of the official legal response from The Oatmeal’s attorneys. It’s a letter worth reading if you’re interested in the official legal responses to the claims made by the site threatening The Oatmeal.
But I also find the letter interesting in this regard: it was sent the same day as The Oatmeal’s blog post responding to the FunnyJunk threatening letter. I don’t know if the timing was a coincidence, but we do know that Matthew Inman, the artist behind The Oatmeal, must have already had conversations with his attorneys about the threatening letter. And Matthew probably knew that the law firm was going to send an official response.
So then why did he do the blog post? I’m sure at some level he felt threatened by the letter–after all, getting a letter from an attorney demanding money or you will be sued never feels good even if you feel you’re completely in the right. There’s time and money involved in defending yourself even from the most frivolous of lawsuits and while sometimes you can recover money at the end that’s not as common as it should be and takes even more time and money. So I’m guessing the blog post was a way for him to respond, to feel empowered, to lash back at someone who threatened him. But did he go too far?
There are many debates over what constitutes cyberbullying. I don’t think any single definition captures it all. But I do think that central to the concept of cyberbullying is the bully having an inappropriate response to something the victim has done. That typically involves some kind of escalation. In the UK, the victim posted an innocent comment of support that the bullies then escalated by accusing her of criminal acts and creating fake accounts in her name to continue those attacks. They may have thought it was just a joke (doubtful, but let’s go with their best case scenario) but even as a joke that is an inappropriate escalation. Just like in a schoolyard if two people disagree and one throws a fist–that’s an inappropriate escalation.
To be fair, most people don’t think they’re escalating the conflict. At some level they think it’s an appropriate response–it’s outside parties that step in to say they went too far. That’s usually an easy thing when the escalation involves words turning into physical harm, but it’s harder to measure when the conduct stays in the verbal realm.
Which brings us back to The Oatmeal. Matthew knew his attorneys were dealing with the threatening letter. Who knows how many letters he gets like this each year? Maybe this was the only one, maybe he gets dozens. Regardless, he had his lawyers dealing with the letter from another lawyer. Then he decided to take it to his audience. Granted, he did so in a humorous way and that was fun, but I think most people reading the response thought that it was how The Oatmeal chose to respond to this threat: showing it to everyone and then raising money for some charities as a way of telling the original threatening party to go away.
But that wasn’t the response. It turns out there was an official response from lawyers (smart). The blog post and charity campaign was something more, an escalation. Was it an appropriate escalation? That’s hard to say. But in The Oatmeal’s response, Matthew specifically called out the attorney (more than including the name on the letter, he also included links and tried to call out some potentially embarrassing information). He also wrote the following:
I don’t want to get tied up in courtroom nonsense. I don’t want to pay more money to my lawyer.
Maybe that statement was meant to be vague, after all nobody wants to pay more money to their lawyer. But it does leave out any indication that he’s also dealing with this officially. In fact, he lays out his plan for dealing with the threat and nowhere in the plan does he mention the official response.
Of course, he doesn’t have to tell the public anything about his legal plan. But it does make his response an escalation.
And make no mistake, the situation has escalated. The Oatmeal raised the initial goal of $20,000 in 64 minutes and has currently raised over $180,000. And there has been a flurry of press attention. Almost all of it dealing with the standard story of Internet-author-wrongly-accused-of-crime-takes-conflict-to-the-Internet. What hasn’t gained as much attention are the attorney’s claims that his website has been hacked and that he has been mocked and ridiculed on Twitter.
If your first response was, “So what? He deserves it for his threatening letter.” then you’re missing the point. Those are escalations of the conflict against him–the attorney in the case. These are above and beyond anything that may be happening to the site that the attorney represents. And I’m also not mentioning the attacks that appear to be targeted against the website client (Matthew’s illustration and some tweets) but the attorney believes are aimed at him. The end result is that now the attorney himself has filed a lawsuit against The Oatmeal alleging that Matthew incited the cyberbullying he has now fallen victim to. The attorney also includes the site raising funds for the charities and the charities themselves, something that may not be a smart move from a public relations perspective but one he may feel is required to get them involved since he believes the charity campaign is not following legal requirements.
This lawsuit is yet another escalation, but is it more of an escalation than The Oatmeal’s blog response? Is it more or less appropriate an escalation?
Fans of The Oatmeal, or the little guy in general, may find it easy to side with The Oatmeal. And to dismiss the actions that others may have taken without Matthew’s knowledge after his blog response. But your view of the situation may change knowing that all of these escalations didn’t need to happen. Matthew’s lawyers were dealing with the complaint. The letter was not posted publicly. I’m not suggesting he just sit back and deal with the letter himself, but he was having his attorneys deliver the official response. The rest was escalation.
Does that make The Oatmeal a cyberbully, or was that a proper response to a cyberbully?