By contributor Zoe Lauckner

While social media has facilitated our generation’s communication and connectedness unlike any other, it has also created a platform for people to spread maliciousness, prejudice, stigmatization, racism, sexism, and a plethora of other forms of hate speech.

Mob mentalities are present both in the physical and online world. Cyber bullying has had a huge impact on many of our most vulnerable populations: youth, Indigenous peoples, women, individuals with disabilities, and people with mental illness. We have all heard of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide in October 2012 after serious cyber bullying following her private pictures leaking. This is one of many high-profile cyber bullying cases to hit the news in the past five years, and, despite the growing efforts of anti-bullying policies and awareness campaigns, these stories continue. A study done by UBC in 1999 looked at 490 students between grades eight to 10 and asked about their experiences with cyber bullying. While the study was done 17 years ago, before Facebook existed, they still found that 25 per cent of Canadian teenagers had witnessed some form of cyber bullying. This is a serious issue in North America, as is evident in a study done by Yale University, which found that teens who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide. At a time when the Canadian Mental Health Association reports suicide as the second leading cause of death among teens, there has to be more that we can do to change this course.

While most of the cyber bullying statistics for Canada focus on teens, and for good reason, there are a number of other demographics affected, particularly individuals who experience homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health issues, who are often unable to advocate for themselves.

Recently, while scrolling through social media, I came across a group dedicated to spreading hate speech about an individual who, at one point in their life, was homeless and often panhandled. This group had been active online for four years, and had over 100 members. Pictures of the individual were posted with accompanying mocking memes, members commenting and calling the individual derogatory names, and at times even threatening violence against them. The comments, while outrageous in their blatant degradation of a vulnerable individual, highlight just how rampant this type of behaviour is online, and the presence of online herd mentality.

Like many others, I found myself at a loss for what to do—while we are proficient in many aspects of social media, we also fall short in education about how to take action against bullying that we witness online. Not only are the majority of social media users unaware of their rights and options for taking action, speaking up against hate speech is intimidating, especially when faced with a group. There are a number of barriers that hold us back from taking a stand against hate speech, but there are so many reasons for us to stand strong and to stand up against bullying.

In an online world where pictures of breastfeeding get removed faster than groups dedicated to spreading hate speech, what can we do to combat this?

The fact is, reporting bullying or hate speech through the social media platform is often a fruitless endeavour. An article written by the Daily Mail UK in 2012 stated that a Facebook-related crime happens approximately every 40 minutes, and those are just the statistics of known cases, including incidents of cyber bullying.

In many instances, users are unable to write any description in their report of something inappropriate, making this system even less functional. While it is important to let the social media platform know about the behaviour in order for them to take action and perhaps revise their policies, in many cases where the bullying is serious, there is another option.

No matter the demographic targeted, hate speech is hate speech, and it’s a criminal offense. Sections 318 and 319 of Canada’s Criminal Code states that it is a criminal offence to advocate, incite, or wilfully promote hatred against any identifiable group, including individuals of any particular age, sex, ethnicity, race, or people with mental or physical disabilities. Yet, how often do we see behaviour that fits this description ignored or glossed over? Even the criminal code can be a grey area fraught with subjectivity. Regardless, your local RCMP are there for handling potential criminal offences, and cyber bullying is one of them. If your efforts to stop the hatred at the source are fruitless, such as contacting the platform or the individual perpetuating the hatred, know that the RCMP take reports very seriously.

At VIU, we’re all here to learn something, to better ourselves, and to grow. We are all on the same team, and need to support each other in becoming the best people we can be. There is nothing better for your mental health than a strong and healthy support network. If you or someone you know is experiencing cyber bullying or is the target of hate speech, reach out in whatever way you can. You’re not alone.

Stay sane(ish), VIU. Until next time…