How engaging your stakeholder community online reduces the risk of bullying and intimidation

A consultation we have been running on Bang the Table for Newcastle Council relating to their Management Plan has raised the question of bullying and intimidation in an online forum. This is a very serious issue and something we have given a lot of thought to in our moderation and facilitation on the site.

To describe the situation, this is a consultation that has had a lot of visitors but not many comments something which is usually indicative of a relatively uncontroversial document (see earlier posting: ‘What makes a Successful Consultation?). However, the page has been live for a long time and has been found by a very small band of vocal individuals who are clearly disgruntled with Council. Chief amongst these is a good friend of ours ‘Bigfeller’ whose comments have featured elsewhere on this blog. We shouldn’t pick on Bigfeller who is vocal, passionate and a valued member of our community but he has provided us with some interesting moderation challenges.

The modus operandi of Bigfeller is to challenge other participants to justify their statements with facts whilst making pretty wild claims himself. He is not at all perturbed by posting many times on the same subject and sometimes even conducts entire discussions with himself. Some examples of his contributions:

Bigfeller: “Dipsy you seem to be very misguided and totally out of touch with reality. Firstly Dipsy please explain why if you reduce rates do you have to reduce services? That is simply not true. Secondly I do not live in an expensive home and I am not well off. I bet my income is less than yours! Thirdly what services do you rely on? Is it flooding from poorly maintained drains, a broken ankle from the root lifted footpath or did you have to buy a GPS because of the lack of information from signage. I bet you also visit the Museum regularly.”


Bigfeller: “Dipsy can you give me one example of a social program provided by Council that is not provided by other Government departments or units? I would also be interested if you can tell me how much Council spends on providing that Social program?”

The question that has been put to us is ‘is this behaviour akin to bullying? Does it put off other users?’

There are a few elements to deal with here. Firstly the most serious notion of bullying in an online forum such as this. Cyber bullying is rightly in the news and a major societal concern at the moment. This is particularly insidious because the web is with us 24 hours a day and so kids who might once have been bullied between 9 and 3 at school are now open to this treatment 24/7.

Cyber bullying is a dreadful phenomenon in modern life but can you really be bullied in an anonymous forum? We think not. Certainly in our moderation we look out for people trying to identify other participants and therefore open them up for this sort of treatment – this is something we do not allow. We also would delete any open personal ridicule or offensive remarks. The nature of an anonymous forum is that you can switch it off and walk away and it no longer affects you or your life. We therefore do not believe that bullying per se can take place on Bang the Table.

However, whether people may feel reluctant to join in the discussion and be intimidated against disagreeing with some of our more vocal members is another question. It is certainly possible. The degree to which this is a problem with online consultation can only really be established by example and by comparison with other consultation methods.

Firstly, in public meetings and workshops we are all familiar with the vocal individual or group. Sometimes these people dominate through their eloquence and intelligence, sometimes their sheer refusal to sit down and be quiet; and sometimes it is through physical presence, aggressive body language and the unspoken threat of violence. Facilitators work hard to ensure that these people do not dissuade others from making a contribution but results can be mixed.

In an online forum the intimidation of potential contributors can never be physical; what’s more, you can always get a word in and be heard. All users of an online engagement speak with an equal volume. All that is left is the fear of being shown up, looking stupid or being ridiculed. We think that being anonymous greatly offsets the impact of this next to standing up in front of a packed meeting but the question remains, do people like Bigfeller put off other users?

We can only answer this by drawing on our experience to date. Our experience has been that when people want to have a say they do so. Far from being put off by the Bigfellers of this world it seems that many users enjoy taking them on. Dipsy (from the example above) certainly did not back down and where we have come across similar behaviour in other consultations. Where the community wants to engage we have found the more aggressive sounding participants have been brought down to size. This exchange from the Newcastle Bus Network Review consultation:

Snugglepot: There has not been enough thought put into this proposal I live in Broadmeadow and rely solely on buses to go to work and shopping I will lose all direct routes to waratah and need that next year also as my grandson needs to catch 226 to waratah high we had it all planned for him to travel to school of choose and now its problem I also have to travel there as nearest shopping centre for groceries and sometimes work on that route at waratah jesmond or uni. I lose fastest route to charlestown and kotara as need for work or to go to shop we have a rail station and you could go to any area from there and now will be unable to catch 1 bus only from broadmeadow put on extra routes if required or faster from far outlying areas do not take routes or the direct routes from broadmeadow a central area that needs all it has and maybe more direct from a central area and a connecting area to a major rail corridor I can’t understand it as the council has been trying to make Broadmeadow a major train and bus corridor for years where is the political support now?

man3668 – A lot of people already have to change buses during their regular trips with the existing system – maybe you’ll just have to adjust if this happens!

meljmiller Now now! no need to be rude…. this is a forum for opinions and everyone is entitled to express theirs without being told to just “adjust”.

NFlyer Have to agree with you meljmiller. Man3668, do you think that mostly a 20 – 30 minute connecting time is acceptable to go to town? Changing buses still means around an hour to get to town. How would you like your bus route being cut from 35 services way down to 10, with only seven going to town and down to zero on Sundays & on Saturdays between Marketown & town?

In fact the online community does not appear to tolerate intimidation of any type. I have watched one of my young daughters engage in debate on our website with a very vocal user of the site and she was able to make her point and attract support from others. Very few children could achieve this in a public meeting as in our society kids are not encouraged to argue with adults.

The web is a great leveler in this regard.

Perhaps this is why we encounter some users who spend their whole time griping about the use of the site. This has occurred in consultations where the traditional engagement methods like meetings also take place. We can only assume that these people are used to dominating public forums and that they do not like the egalitarian nature of the internet.

I will give the last word to our friend Bigfeller, for even he can be made to seem reasonable when confronted with direct criticism. This response to someone who challenged his criticism of Council’s use of online consultation:

Bigfeller: “The Management plan is not just a plan for ratepayers. It’s a plan for all residents of Newcastle and indeed for all visitors as well. Some aspects of the Man Plan are part user pays such as the parking, pools and child care. So it is about spending your money. If the management plan was more user pays then your input would be even more important.

Even for people without mobility issues this site concept is great and the way of the future. One way to help you understand the man plan is to ask questions and raise issues. I am sorry if you think I am going on and on but I have been trying to stimulate debate and use of this site.”

Thanks mate!

Photo Credits: disgruntledbaker1

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