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Online Bullying: Is the Internet Bringing out the Worst in All of Us?

06/06/2013 15:38 BST | Updated 05/08/2013 10:12 BST

Bullying online - it's something that happens to (and is done by) c-list celebrities and teenagers right? Wrong. I apologize now for the lack of the usual attempts at humour in this post, but I have had reason to experience a real about-face on this subject. For the first time in a while I can't find anything funny to say. I am simply deeply concerned about a trend that seems to be growing in the face of weak and ineffective legal protection for web users.

Up until recently as far as I was concerned online bullying amounted to nothing more than petty name calling between wags, reality stars and publicity junkies. All the parties involved end up looking ugly and petty and no amount of crisis PR management normally resolves the tarnish to their perma-tanned, cosmetically enhanced smiles. People read the posts and laugh at the silly, playground bitchiness of it. Or I did anyway.

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I have read article after article from people claiming to be 'bullied' online and I just couldn't get it. Online isn't somewhere you HAVE to be. Surely bullying occurs in a situation you are unable to leave? I couldn't help but wonder why people don't just block the offending parties, delete certain accounts or stopped visiting forums that seem to perpetuate the gang nastiness mentality that appears to be behind a lot of digital cruelty.

As far as I was concerned the old adage 'sticks and stones shall break my bones but names can never hurt me' stood true. Why should it matter so much what a bunch of people you don't know think of you?

Then I saw something happen on one of my networks that entirely disavowed me of any notions that bullying on-line doesn't really happen. A small but very successful business I follow was targeted by a group of other women in the same industry, for reasons I can only attribute to jealousy. Far from name-calling, these women started a campaign of hate that was breath-taking in not only the levels of awfulness they perpetuated but also its completeness.

It started with some nasty rumours about the death of a child (yes I know). Then the woman's business was targeted with falsified reviews. Then emails flowed in their hundreds. Groups were started devoted to what else they could do to her. The lady found out the hard way that dealing with this issue legally is tricky, time-consuming and incredibly expensive. Attempts to fight back invariably made it much, much worse. Finally after a year of sustained attacks, this weekend a woman whose only real crime was to build a successful on-line business in a very competitive industry tried to commit suicide. And I began to understand exactly how serious an issue this is.

Going through the activity over the last year, what stood out for me was how much of this 'bullying' seems to be people jumping on the band-wagon. I wonder what it is about the net that makes us do that.

Hypnotist Derren Brown did a show last year about the power of the herd-mentality and whilst I think this is responsible for part of it, it can't be all. Do that many of us, who would never behave so badly in real life think that a computer, some anonymity and lots of other people behaving just as appallingly think that we are thus entitled to drop our morals, social codes and ethics to be as cruel as we like; after all they are only words? It isn't real life is it?

But that is the point. Real lives and real businesses are being destroyed by these 'silly words'. I consider myself quite thick skinned but there is no way I could take months and years of sustained abuse and harassment. Turning off your network isn't that simple when your livelihood depends upon it and people with no social media status are viewed as slightly suspicious - employers, future partners, customers, all look us up online to get an idea of who we are. Imagine the impact on your prospects if the only thing they found was pages upon pages of abusive and vile comments about your life.

So if you want to avoid this what can you do? Legally there is little re-course that doesn't cost the earth and the police are being overwhelmed by complaints but there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your business from becoming the bullies next target:

1. If you are running a business, deal with genuine customer complaints in a timely and efficient manner as soon as you become aware of them. Ignoring angry customers is a perfect spring-board for band-wagon jumping.

2. Ignore/block trolls. People who are deliberately trying to inflame you with nasty opinions, personal remarks or horrible comments want the same thing that real-world bullies want. Attention. So don't give it to them. Don't try to explain yourself, or change their minds. You won't win. Walk away.

3. Keep personal details and information separate from business and remember that what goes online stays online - never think you can delete something from the web, you really can't.

4. Think about what you say. So you just read an article that made you mad, loads of others have commented and they are all being pretty harsh. You don't need to join in. Even if a silly thread has been started or an article posted that you really don't agree with you can still walk away from the argument. Simply ask yourself if you would be happy with someone making the same comment to your wife, for instance, or your child. If the answer is no, don't go there.

5. Email site owners personally. If a false review, nasty comment or personal remark has been made about you on a site you don't own, email the owner of the site, politely explain the situation, including any evidence you may have and ask if they would remove the offending comment. You cannot force them to, but most site owners are happy to help in these cases.

And finally, it goes without saying. If you wouldn't say it to someone's face, don't say it online. The digital world is not the playground and we can all be bigger than that - can't we?