What Kind of Bystander Are You Going to Be?

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The following is a guest post by my former colleague Andrea Weckerle, the founder of CiviliNation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting online hostility and character assassination. Her book Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies, and Other Jerks was released in February.

Every single day we see example after example of online attacks against individuals and organizations. It’s as though people have forgotten, or possible never even learned, the art of disagreeing with another’s position or point of view without devolving into personal or reputational attacks against the other side as a means of expressing their displeasure.

What’s interesting is that when we think about online attacks, we often focus exclusively on who the people or companies in dispute are. Identifying the public-facing attacker and the visible target or victim is relatively easy, whereas we tend to overlook the behind-the-scenes or hidden disputants who are represented by the visible ones.

We also frequently forget about the stakeholders, namely the allies, supporters, or sympathizers, associated with both sides. All of these play a critical role in how the dispute ultimately plays out.

But the one group whose importance and influence we tend to overlook is that of bystanders. It’s this group that has enormous power over the direction that online disputes can take. Bystanders can serve as the voice of reason… or be the catalysts for mob-like behavior.

Non-Plussed Comments about Abercrombie

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Image from Style Has No Noise

The recent controversy surrounding retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is a good example. Briefly, Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t offer plus sizes for females because the company believes this wouldn’t fit the cool image it projects. CEO Mike Jeffries is quoted as saying “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Not surprisingly, even people not directly targeted by Jeffries’ remarks have strong opinions about this and haven’t shied away from sharing them. But they’re doing it in different ways, some constructively and others not at all so (check out the Twitter results for the term “Abercrombie”).

So what can bystanders do? Well, they have several different options to choose from:

1. Observe but refrain from getting involved

2. Publicly support the attacker

3. Privately support the attacker

4. Publicly support the target or victim

5. Privately support the target or victim

6. Become participants that attempt to deescalate the situation

The vast majority of bystanders decide not to participate, and the reasons for doing so can range from feeling they don’t care enough about the problem to speak up, thinking their individual voice won’t steer the situation in a different direction, or wanting to avoid the risk of becoming a target themselves if they lend their support to either side.

Bystanders who decide to publicly support one side or the other carry the risk, as noted, that they’ll become possible targets of furious opponents. However, by taking a stand they also have the opportunity to publicly speak out against unfair or untruthful statements and behavior. The challenge is to do so in a fact-based, rational and persuasive way, without getting sucked into the blind emotional intensity frequently seen in online exchanges and without taking cheap shots at the other side or trying to incite others into an online frenzy.

Private supporters, meanwhile, don’t have the benefit of potentially swaying others to their side, but they also minimize the potential risk to themselves. At the same time, they can still provide important emotional or resource support behind the scenes.

Bystanders who decide to participate in order to deescalate a situation serve an important and often not sufficiently appreciated role. These individuals help create a more level playing field where dissenting voices can express themselves safely without fear of harm, where truth and fact-based information have a chance to be heard, and where people can come together to work through difficult issues without letting the loudest, most aggressive and most damaging voices take over.

Which type of bystander are you doing to be?

12 thoughts on “What Kind of Bystander Are You Going to Be?

  1. Andrea, I appreciate the work that CivilNation is doing. Shinning a light and advising a course of action to a rapidly growing practice in the social space, I will support in any way I can. I guess I fit into a couple of the categories in that I tend to often privately support the attacked and mostly try and deescalate. However with many of the wrongs that get exposed, I see many jump into the “fight” (and they are quick to do so) that have not even examined the facts right or wrong. The battle becomes a playground mud slinging with little being resolved or as equal damage on both sides of the issue!

    • Great comment Randy. +1000

      And I think it’s because of the “playground” itself (the Web, or mobile platform etc…). I think it’s “easier” to “sling mud” when the issue being discussed isn’t taking place live in a conference room.

      I mean, imagine if these passionate topics were being discussed face to face, would we “sling mud” as much if the person (or people) we were slinging mud towards were right on the other side of a table?

      It’s almost as if the action of “the protest” comes alive much easier on the Internet, and I think it’s because the Internet gives people a chance to “protest” or make their voice heard, where normally… they wouldn’t want to participate at all.

      But, then, what is the solution?

      You can shout “we should all be civil” from the digital rooftops until you’re blue in the face… and what happens?

      I just hope Andrea’s movement picks up a LOT of steam, because she is on the right track. :)

  2. @Geoff, thanks for the opportunity to share… hopefully it will get
    people thinking about how they can positively harness the power of
    bystanders!

    @Randy Bowden:disqus, as you point out, the bystander categories aren’t always mutually exclusive. And when a situation is deescalated, it provides people an opportunity to *respond* instead or merely *react* to what’s happening – a much more productive approach.

    • Great to have you, Andrea. I know this post sparked some good discussion on my various channels and elsewhere. I think it made a difference!

  3. How timely considering the Amy’s Baking Company meltdown happening on a Facebook fan page right now. I just went over there to get some context, but now I will not even bother to check again.

    The world has enough hate and stress, and I love accumulating that stress, without me finding another source. The hateful comments on this page serve no good purpose. If the brand survives, or goes down, the sun will still come up tomorrow.

    FYI, other than the occasional sports and weather, I do NOT watch the news. Too much sensationalism…too much stirring the pot for ratings with the hopes something blows up and go viral.

    I’ll focus on my family and trying to be the best husband/dad/friend/employer/employee I can be. I will give my time to efforts that encourage vs tear down. While others are picking which side of a fight to participate in, or root for, I’ll just choose to go hit a tennis ball.

    I do not have what it takes to be a social activist. I do have what it takes to change my world for the better by raising responsible kids, maintaining marriage fidelity, being fiscally responsible, and trying to volunteer or contribute to charitable organizations who do not care what clothes you were…they just want you to HAVE clothes.

    • I tuned that one out right away. Jerry Springer lives on Facebook, but worse is the continuation of the mess by bystanders. It’s rubbernecking at its worst. And now we’ll get the Amy’s blog posts about what they should have done.

      That being said while I abstain more and more frequently, sometimes you need to say something, and I do, but now I try to ask questions in response to an odd statement, or publish generally about a situation rather than take license with someone individually. Vigilantism creates two wrongs, rather than a right.

      Good thoughts here, Brian.

  4. Good stuff Andrea. Deescalating bystander behavior plays an even more important role in stopping violence or being a real friend in the offline world.

  5. Personally I do not come across much, or any on-line bullying. And I feel lucky because of it. Like many, I don’t like it, on-line or off-line.
    Every time I see a (American) movie where bullies appear I crinch. Whether or not the bullies are put in their place, it still perpetuates the “bully culture”. And there will always be somebody inspired by it.

    When I do come across something, I do support the attacked.
    But, I do not let myself in with big on-line fights over some clothing line or whatever. That, to me, is a waste of time.

    And I agree with Brian Vickery . I don’t watch the news, it always annoys me and ticks me off. It just costs to much energy.

    I do realise some things are worth our attention.., and the choice what that “fight” will be is very personal.

    • I never really though of our culture as a bully culture, but it is. If you consider the deification of Clint Eastwood, a bully who fights other bullies, you have to agree with that.

      I have to agree with you on wasting time with the big brand battles. The bakery shop last week was another one to miss… Hope you are doing well, Rogier!

      • I’m great Geoff. Thanks for asking… A bit sad that my episode of the Oi! Conference was cancelled. I can’t make to Cardiff. Was planning on meeting Mark Schaefer.., bummer…

  6. I think the term bystander, in itself, implies passivity. I think there are are bystanders, activists, and participants. Each plays a different but specific role in any situation.

    Activists create, participants follow along, and bystanders simply observe.

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