Professor of law at the University of Maryland Danielle Citron speaks during a talk called "Cultures of Connection: Combating Cyber Aggression." The talk was hosted by UW Resilience.

In today’s modern world, most of us are involved in at least one mechanism of online engagement. With this growing online dependency comes an increase in cyber aggression. On Monday, the UW Resilience Lab collaborated with other campus organizations to host an event called “Cultures of Connection: Combating Cyber Aggression.” 

The event was constructed as a public conversation on various forms of online aggression, its impacts, and how to cultivate an empathetic community for victims.

Kelly Edwards, associate dean for Student and Postdoctoral Affairs in the Graduate School, said motivation for the collaboration came from wanting to address a “pattern seen through the decades” of aggression and, more specifically, the spike in online hostility after the 2016 election. 

Speakers for the event were Ellen Taylor, associate vice president for Student Life, and Danielle Citron, professor of law at Maryland University and author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.” 

During her keynote speech, Citron emphasized the targeting of women and the sexualization that comes alongside it. She noted that women in their 20s are most vulnerable to this form of victimization.

Specifically, Citron cited a pattern of young women having private nude imagery shared by past partners online with personal information attached. This sort of attack is open to public scrutiny and in particular, to future employers. She emphasized the harm to economic opportunities.

“People have a hard time getting and maintaining jobs,” Citron said. “It makes people withdraw from something that is so central in how we get jobs and communicate with one another.”

Emphasis was also placed on the psychological impact online harassment can have on individuals and how important both self-care and institutional support from professors and advisors are to helping victims cope with their situations. This tied into the central theme of constructing a community.

Both speakers spent some time discussing the motivations behind cyber aggression and how easy it can be to engage when there is a desire for validation and belonging alongside peer pressure. 

“Each of us has potential to harm and mechanisms that enable anonymity make it easier to enable that potential,” Taylor said.

With the growing power of online harassment and victimization, however, there has been a response in combating efforts by social media platforms and corporations to moderate this behavior. Citron cited corporations such as Google, YouTube, Reddit, and Facebook taking steps to limit the capabilities of harassers. 

“In the summer of 2014, Google and Bing announced that they would de-index nude images posted without consent in searches of people’s names,” Citron said.

Corporations are not the only entities responding to and aiming to combat online aggression. State and federal law has seen substantial expansion and progress in the last decade to protect victims of online harassment.

Citron discussed how this legal protection arises from civil rights law and specifically, the First Amendment. She explained that First Amendment rights do not by any means protect all speech as there are certain limitations in place. In terms of online harassment, the amendment does not protect speech that is costly to the victims.

“There are moments when I realize the harasser’s speech is going to be diminished, but we should be less worried about the harasser’s speech when the entire purpose of the speech is to silence other people,” Citron said.

The event emphasized fostering compassion, empathy, and building a community around these sentiments. Both Citron and Taylor noted the collective responsibility of all individuals engaging in online platforms to foster healthy communities that set expectations and standards for dialogue. 


Reach contributing writer Samira Khadar at Twitter: @samirakhadar

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