The Ethics of Online Writing

As you all know I am an avid netball fan, so, of course, I was on tenterhooks watching the recent Commonwealth Games gold medal match between my beloved Aussie Diamonds and the English Roses. I will admit that I was aghast at the amount of ‘coach killer’ errors my favourite team offered up, particularly by the more seasoned players. And, if you were watching the game, I am sure you also let out expletives at the uncharacteristic error by Kimmy Rav just minutes before the end of the game. Many fans have blamed Kimmy for losing the game, and these outraged netball fans took to the Aussie Diamonds social media channels to voice this opinion. Admittedly, some also blamed the coach and the umpires. But the point is, many of the negative posts I saw sprawled across these pages were harsh, obscene and downright cruel. The upset and guilt was written all over Kimmy Rav’s face after the game and during the medal ceremony, which makes seeing these bashing posts all the more shocking; because I do not doubt that she too, will have seen them. Reading these posts got me thinking: in this day and age of free speech and readily available avenues for voicing one’s opinion, whose responsibility is it if she were to take these negative comments to heart, and god forbid, acted on them?



Last year I did a fair amount of study on ‘readers response theory’. The crux of this theory examines the impact that readers have on the meaning of texts. Put simply; readers response theory examines the intentions a writer has, when composing a text, and weighs that against the reader, who may interpret that text differently and form their opinions about it*. This means that if a reader were to take offence to a piece of text, then readers response theory supposes that the onus of this interpretation rests solely with the reader, rather than the writer. The theory seems plausible when you are looking at a novel, feature article or blog, but when it comes to social media does readers response theory apply? My answer is a tentative yes, BUT only under certain circumstances. I mean, we have all read cryptic messages posted by a friend and wondered whether that post was aimed at us. There is even a Samuel L Jackson meme floating around about this. So, in this circumstance, I, as the reader, am responsible for my interpretation of my friend’s cryptic message.


BUT, noting the rise of cyberbullying, it seems unethical to let a writer off the hook that easy. It’s common sense: with a plain, expletive message deliberately targeted toward an individual, I must believe that the onus of interpretation rests solely with the writer, and it seems sociologists agree with me. A 2016 study out of the University of Hong Kong**, which examined adults’ using social media for cyberbullying, found that adults are neutralising and rationalising their choice to engage in cyberbullying. According to the study, these adults ‘suspended their offline moral inclinations’ because, amongst other reasons, they saw benefit in the anonymity that social media provides. They, therefore, use this anonymity to deliberately ‘say’ things to people which they would not normally say. I don’t know about you, but before I post anything on social media, I (literally) think ‘would my Grandma disapprove of this?’, if my answer is yes, then I delete the post. It seems unfathomable to me that people deliberately ignore their Jiminy Cricket because they are posting online. But the unfortunate reality is that it happens.


So, regrettably, I am left with more questions than answers to this ethical conundrum. I guess the solution rests in a case-by-case review of what is written. While we search for a definitive answer, I implore everyone to just take it easy on social media, because I was disgusted and embarrassed (as a netball fan and as an Australian) to read all of those posts following the gold medal match. What was posted was unsportsmanlike and cruel, and this is just about netball! I would hate to read the messages about a more serious event. If everyone stopped to consider the possible impact their comments could have on the recipient, or consider whether their mother, grandmother, son or daughter would approve of the post, we might find ourselves reversing the cyberbullying trend.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SIMON LEONARD, NETBALL SCOOP


References

*Azmi, M.N.L. (2015). East meets west: the reader response theory in thriller fictions. Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences. 174, 58-63.

** Paul Benjamin Lowry, Jun Zhang, Chuang Wang, Mikko Siponen (2016) Why Do Adults Engage in Cyberbullying on Social Media? An Integration of Online Disinhibition and Deindividuation Effects with the Social Structure and Social Learning Model. Information Systems Research 27(4):962-986. https://doi.org/10.1287/isre.2016.0671

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