Addressing online violence: What’s the role of the community manager?

There are days when one wonders how people can be so cruel. I had one of those days when I read about Amy Inita, who was beaten while a group of her peers filmed the altercation and later died in hospital. What makes it worse is that, not a week before that, Marina Lonina pleaded not-guilty to charges of rape and kidnapping after she and Raymond Gates were alleged to have planned and then live-streamed the sexual assault of one of Lonina’s acquaintances in early 2016.

Naturally, the response to Amy’s death burned across Twitter, spawning a hashtag and hundreds of thousands of tweets, including vehement backlash against Amy’s attacker and the social media bystanders. The irony of the online response to the attack is not lost on me, even as I participate in the online commentary surrounding a death that might not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the narcotic draw of internet fame and popularity.

But instead of lambasting the witnesses for allowing a girl to be beaten to death while they filmed, I want to ponder for a moment the role that we as purveyors of online content and students of online communities have to address and help bystanders understand the true value of an internet following when weighed against the value of a human life.

Of course, despite knowing a thing or two about how people communicate online, addressing this issue is a tall order for people who generally only deal with forgetful members or faceless trolls who dish out stinging, but mostly harmless, online repartee. In spite of that, community managers may be the best people to fully comprehend the intersection of online and in-person events, be they planned or spontaneous, friendly or benevolent.

So, is there a difference between everyday people recording and sharing violence and photojournalists reporting violence? I think that there may be a difference, and a large one. I also believe that community managers can help to convince people, especially those of us who have grown up on social media, that no act of violence should be tolerated and that ignoring—or worse, filming and sharing—violent acts occurring in front of you is tantamount to committing those acts yourself.

There is lots of evidence that violent acts, especially those that are shared widely in media, either traditional or social, tend to spawn similar acts. It has been shown to happen with violent acts between people as well as deadly acts against the self. There is a light at the end of this tunnel, though. Despite being part of the problem, traditional media and online networks and communities are also part of the cure. As suicide hotline counselor Atsa Schmidt tells Rebecca Hersher in a Goats and Soda article about the suicide epidemic in Greenland, the one thing all her cases had in common were “love…or lack of it.” And Hersher continues:

Her observations are in line with something psychologists and sociologists think is fundamental to the causes of suicide in Greenland. When communities are disrupted, like Kangeq was, families start to collapse. There’s an increase in alcoholism, child neglect and physical abuse, all of which are risk factors for suicide. Later, people who didn’t get the love and support they needed as children find it difficult to cope with the routine heartbreak of dating, and a breakup becomes the final insult in a lifetime of hurt.

So who better to take up the mantle when communities flounder? While we may not be part of the problem, we take part every day in what has become a social vehicle for violence in addition to a vehicle for good. As we venture into new technological territory, we must help to build the ethical and moral guidebook around online behavior, especially as we educate and serve the generations who will inherit the online world we help build. As community managers, we must ask ourselves what we can do to ensure that communities online and offline respond proactively to violent situations and address the effects of online violence on real lives.

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