Andrea Weckerle is the founding president of CiviliNation, a non-profit education and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing civility in our online discourse. She brings her varied skill set as an attorney, dispute resolution specialist, and communications consultant to bear on the challenges we face in creating online communities that are robust, democratic, and free of harassment and character defamation.
I posed several questions to Andrea about her work and CiviliNation, and here’s what she had to say:
1. Andrea, please tell us why you founded CiviliNation.
Years ago when I became active online and started blogging, which was before the time of social networking sites, I felt like I’d won the lottery. I was able to meet people from all over the world, from different fields and industries, and come together to talk and share ideas, debate the important issues of the day, and collaborate in a way that previously had only been possible in face-to-face meetings.
But right away I also noticed that there were always some individuals who undermined what was going on, whose sole purpose seemed to be to wreak havoc and attack others online, seemingly for fun. I came across the work of Dr. John Suler of Ryder University where he discussed the Online Disinhibition Effect, which basically involves people saying and doing things online they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in everyday interactions.
Over the next several years, I was hearing about, and meeting increasingly, more people who were the targets of online attacks – both well-known and everyday folks – and I started wondering why no one was working to put a stop to this. Fortunately there are excellent groups dealing with cyberbullying of children and teenagers, but I couldn’t find anyone specifically focused on the needs of the adult population. So one day, after once again talking about how “someone needs to address the problem of adult hostility,” CiviliNation was born.
2. How does CiviliNation’s overall agenda intersect with concerns about civility and dignity in the workplace?
More than at any other time in history it is now possible to quickly and easily learn things about one’s colleagues, clients and competitors that in the past would have taken a considerable amount of time and effort to discover; increasingly more hiring decisions are taking into consideration someone’s online behavior and online reputation (the latter being something that ill-meaning people can seriously and easily damage); and with the increased use of technology in the workplace, it’s become much easier to attack, harass and bully someone at work.
CiviliNation believes that people have a fundamental right to be free of unwarranted attacks and harassment in the workplace, and we strongly oppose the extent to which technology is being misused to degrade, harass and attack others.
3. What role does law and public policy reform play in advancing CiviliNation’s broader objectives?
Applying pre-Internet rules of engagement to a world comprised of communication that’s instantaneous, global, and non-retractable is problematic. Furthermore, the application of laws is challenging in and of itself – while what may be permissible in one state or country may be impermissible in another, the Internet and what we do online aren’t jurisdictionally bound. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let these issues dissuade us from expecting the legal system to provide appropriate recourse for victims and to hold transgressors fully accountable for their actions.
That having been said, we cannot rely on the legal system to create norms of behavior. We need individuals and the communities they belong to, both online and off, to step forward and model a positive online environment that supports and fosters freedom of expression via passionate debate and spirited dissent, while at the same time safeguarding the right of others to engage online without fear of physical, reputational or psychological attacks.
Starting in 2012, “3 Questions for…” is a regular feature presenting short interviews with notable individuals whose work and activities overlap with major themes of this blog.
I really respect the work she is doing. The law that seriously needs to be changed is the Communications Decency Act Section 230 which was started in the early days of the internet. That horrible law basically opened up the floodgates for libel and defamation to occur on the internet. The law, for those unfamilar, states that an internet company cannot be directly sued for content. I find that astonishing because it means that companies don’t have to be responsible. It is their website, they are making profit, yet they can’t be held accountable?
That is the very reason why companies like Backpage.com and Craiglist continue to get away with sex trafficking despite the media reporting on what is going on. Their CEO’s always for PR claim that users need to report and they will work with the police, though that has proven to rarely be the case. They don’t do anything because they know they can’t be sued even though they should be responsible for their own profit making site. It is immoral and based in greed.
Another one is a website called Topix that has tons of forums and few moderators and doesn’t require registration because the company has no desire to hold users accountable in fear it will cost them a few dimes. The only way to do anything is to use their joke of a feedback site. Most of the time things are still not removed (they aren’t going to remove what is popular), forget contacting them by phone or leaving them a message and people should not be forced to have to keep going on their site to report libel.
I know the argument is stay off the sites if you don’t like it, but that is foolish thinking. If someone is libeling you then your reputation is being destroyed whether you go there or not.
I will conclude Formspring is another one that needs to be looked at too. It is more of a children’s site but really bad. Though their CEO recently admitted more needs to be done about the bullying which is a lot more than Backpage, Craig’s, and Topix will admit.