Category Archives: mobbing

Online harassment

Harassment online is a big problem. Legal remedies have limitations. It’s worth gaining ideas from nonviolent action.


One of my friends told me about a time, years ago, when she was stalked by a former student who threatened to kill her. The police could only recommend driving home using a different route and being cautious. She is pretty tough and is a politically aware feminist, yet she worried about what he might do to her or, if he turned his attention elsewhere, to someone else.

One of the difficulties in dealing with stalking is that, to outsiders, it doesn’t seem so bad. So what if someone comes by your neighbourhood and watches from a distance or shows up when you’re shopping? If he hasn’t physically touched you, what’s the problem? Until you’ve been stalked yourself, or talked to friends who have been, it’s hard to appreciate the terror it can cause.

These days, physical stalking has been overshadowed by an online version of the same problem. Stalking is just one version of a wider set of abuses that can be called harassment, bullying or mobbing. As with old-fashioned physical stalking, the online versions are often not treated as seriously as they deserve.

The most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of this problem is Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland. Based on years of study and interviews with dozens of victims, Citron’s book is a call to arms.

 Hate crimes in cyberspace cover

The experience

To give a sense of the patterns and impact of cyber harassment, Citron uses three case studies. One involves a female law student who, for no apparent reason, started becoming a target of abusive, threatening commentary on blog sites, including lies about her test scores, sexual behaviour and mental problems. What happens in cases like this is that after a public attack begins, lots of people join in, turning individual bullying into collective mobbing.

Her employment prospects were diminished because many potential employers look online to check out job applicants; when they see derogatory material, they seldom seek to verify it, instead just passing over the applicant in favour of someone about which there is no adverse material.

The attackers went beyond abuse, seeking to wreck the student’s life and career. They wrote to her employers making all sorts of false, damaging claims, and also made false claims about her husband.


            Another one of Citron’s case studies involves a woman who became prominent as a blogger, discussing software design. Simply by being a woman commenting in a male-dominated technological field, she became a target of massive abuse, including death threats, rape fantasies and the like.

The third case study is of a victim of revenge porn. This woman’s ex-partner posted nude photos of her on various websites, plus her contact details. An online profile falsely stated she wanted sex for money. This and other posts led to a barrage of unwelcome attention. Her boss and colleagues received photos by emails that seemed to come from her.

These three case studies, with many details (but not names), provide powerful testimony of the damage that can be caused by online abuse. Citron supplements these with a range of additional examples.


            Several factors contribute to the prevalence of cyberharassment. One is the online disinhibition effect: when people are anonymous, or just feel anonymous and separated from their target, they are less inhibited in what they say. The tech blogger received mountains of online abuse but none face-to-face. Another factor contributing to cyberharassment is that many people, including attackers, police and judges, do not think it’s a big deal. Attackers often say, “It goes with the territory” and police may recommend avoiding it: “Just don’t go online.” This is like telling a victim of street assault not to go outside.


Citron offers two revealing comparisons, with sexual harassment and domestic violence. Decades ago, these were not seen as issues of importance. Sexual harassment was seen as something women at work just had to accept, and likewise domestic violence was invisible as a social issue. Then along came the feminist movement. Sexual harassment and domestic violence were given names, stigmatised as wrong and even contemptible and criminalised by the passing of laws.

Citron says cyberharassment should be treated the same way. In all three forms of abuse, women and men can be victims, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Citron gives most attention to legal remedies. She examines existing US laws for prospects of using them against cyberharassment – mostly the experience has been that they are useless – and recommends law reform and education of police and judges. She also recognises the importance of cultural change, including via interventions with Internet firms and in families.

 Danielle Keats Citron
Danielle Citron

Options in Australia

Citron’s focus is on the situation in the US, and she closely examines US court decisions and legal doctrine, especially concerning the protection of free speech in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Online harassers often defend their actions as exercising their own free speech. Citron shows, through a careful analysis, that it is possible to legislate against cyberharassment in ways compatible with the First Amendment. Her discussion is a fascinating tour of US free-speech law, much of it showing the sophistication of court judgements.

first amendment

            In Australia, however, this analysis is largely irrelevant, because there is no explicit constitutional protection of free speech, only an inferred and quite limited area of protection. In Australia, then, there is no constitutional barrier to passing laws against online harassment. Paradoxically, though, far less has been done in the legal domain than in the US. This may be because legal remedies are more a consequence of cultural change than a driver of it. Furthermore, laws sometimes give only an appearance of protection.

I remember when, decades ago, the issue of sexual harassment came onto the agenda for Australian universities. At the Australian National University in the mid-1980s, two groups were set up, one to address complaints, the other to raise awareness. I was in the awareness-promoting group: we wrote and distributed leaflets, wrote articles and gave talks. Then, in 1986, I obtained a lectureship at the University of Wollongong and joined the sexual harassment committee when it was formed that year; the same differences in function were apparent. Over the next decade there was considerable effort to raise concerns about sexual harassment and a related issue, abuse of trust and conflict of interest when academics had sexual relationships with students.

In those years, there was considerable attention to sexual harassment. But then the issues dropped from the main agenda. At Wollongong, the sexual harassment committee was abolished in 1998. The formal procedures remained, but efforts to generate awareness declined. Sexual harassment continued, but less was done to alert new cohorts of students and staff about the problem.

My experiences with sexual harassment committees made me sceptical of formal procedures as the primary tool for addressing problems. In many cases, official processes served to keep problems from being publicised. My special interest remains in helping people acquire knowledge and skills to deter and resist abuse.

Nonviolent action and cyberharassment

Citron, although emphasising legal remedies, also canvasses other options. One of them is individual resistance by exposing attacks. Some targets have courageously made public statements describing abuse and denouncing it. This is a potentially a powerful response, generating awareness and stimulating support, but sometimes it leads to the abuse becoming even more intense. Harassers are outraged when victims refuse to acquiesce, and are especially angry when their aggression, and sometimes their identity, is exposed.

In Australia, Emma Jane has undertaken in-depth research into what she calls “e-bile,” which incorporates various forms of online abuse and harassment. Her special interest is online misogyny, and the increasing prevalence of threats to women of rape, torture and murder. Like Citron, Jane is disappointed with institutional responses, and as well decries academic studies that minimise or ignore the serious impacts. She acknowledges that direct action by targets, called vigilantism, sometimes can be worthwhile, but argues that collective responses to change policies and cultural attitudes are necessary too.

To help judge when open resistance is likely to be effective, it is useful to turn to experience with nonviolent action against injustice, using methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. One option is using some of these techniques against groups that enable or tolerate cyberharassment. A possibility would be organising protests or boycotts of companies that advertise on sites refusing to restrain attacks. However, obtaining sufficient leverage to promote change might be difficult.

Another option is to apply the general approach of nonviolent action to a different domain, cyberharassment, where there is seldom any physical violence by harassers (though the threat of violence is routine). Naming and shaming harassment and harassers can be considered analogous to nonviolent action against a violent opponent.

Gene Sharp is widely considered a pioneer thinker about nonviolent action. His 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. It also presents a set of stages or elements of nonviolent campaigns. The first stage he calls “laying the groundwork”, which means building awareness, organisations and skills, all before taking action. The next stage Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”: campaigners take (nonviolent) action against the opponent, knowing that their open resistance may trigger a repressive response. The third element in Sharp’s framework is “maintaining nonviolent discipline”: if activists use violence, this helps to justify their opponent’s use of superior violence. By refusing to use violence, campaigners build greater support. Sometimes the opponent’s violence can trigger a huge increase in popular support, a process Sharp calls political jiu-jitsu.

he 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa triggered international condemnation: it backfired on the government.

            This framework can be applied to responding to cyberharassment. An individual who is being harassed might be courageous to go public about it, but to be effective it may be better to lay the groundwork first, by collecting more evidence, building ties with other targets and with opponents of harassment, and preparing a strategy. Only when fully ready psychologically and organisationally is it time to openly resist, in what Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”. An increase in attacks should be expected. The challenge then is for everyone involved to remain composed and not respond in kind. At this point, anything that seems like a counter-attack, for example a legal action or exposing private details about harassers, should be avoided so it is completely clear to neutral observers who are the aggressors. The possibility then is that further harassment, if exposed, might lead to a huge increase in support.


            For an individual, this may involve considerable sacrifice: standing up to abuse remains risky. Therefore, it is wise to act as part of a supportive group, with links to a wider movement.

For those willing to take the risk, it’s possible to learn from research on nonviolent action about how to increase the effectiveness of resistance. Activism against cyberharassment is vital in changing cultural attitudes. Future generations may be the primary beneficiaries of efforts today to openly resist abuse.

Brian Martin

Thanks for Sharon Callaghan for valuable comments.

Dealing with shaming


Imagine that you posted a tweet or Facebook comment and suddenly became the target of an online attack, denounced by thousands of furious commenters. What you had intended as a joke was off-colour or poorly expressed, maybe, but it was nothing all that significant, yet your reputation was savaged.

This is what happened to Justine Sacco, who made an ill-advised tweet just before leaving on a long flight. On arrival, she found out she was the target of a massive campaign of abuse. She lost her  job. It took her months to recover her bearings.

Justine Sacco

            Sacco’s story is one of several examined in Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson, a journalist, is the author of a series of highly entertaining books about weird topics. In his book Them he reported on his encounters with individuals holding extreme right-wing views. In The Men Who Stare at Goats – also made into a film – he told about US military experiments with psychic powers.

Ronson decided to investigate a recent phenomenon: public shaming via social media. Public shaming is hardly new. The Puritans famously put criminals in the stocks for public ridicule. What has changed is the ease by which someone’s casual comment can be broadcast to the world and lead to an orgy of abuse.

Ronson’s approach is to pick some juicy case studies and make contact with the key figures, interviewing them and using their stories to make wider points, or just to provide a vivid way of highlighting concerns. He begins with the story of Jonah Lehrer, a highly praised science writer whose books sold millions of copies. Lehrer was caught out having been sloppy in sourcing his claims and then lying about it. He consented to appear on a broadcast where he made a public apology with a twitter feed as a backdrop. His apology was unsuccessful: it triggered even more abuse.

Jonah Lehrer

            In Lehrer’s case, there might be some sense of karma, in that a high-flyer, living in an expensive house and enjoying fame, was undone by his transgressions, and those who brought him down were lesser mortals simply using tweets. But other cases, such as Justine Sacco’s, show that something more ominous is occurring. Sacco was not a public figure and she didn’t do anything all that terrible: she made one tweet, a social comment in the form of a poorly expressed joke, and paid an exorbitant penalty. Ronson points out that we now live in a society in which deviations from some arbitrary orthodoxy of proper behaviour may be punished, in a seemingly arbitrary way, by a storm of online abuse. Meanwhile, there are plenty of big-time criminals of the white collar variety who escape public censure.

Ronson’s journey led him to Max Mosley, son of the leader of Britain’s Nazi Party during the 1930s, who made a life for himself in the motorcar racing scene. Mosley was outed in the mass media for engaging in S&M orgies, alleged to be Nazi-themed. Having the juicy details of these orgies recounted to the public would be, for most individuals, excruciatingly humiliating, but Mosley was unbowed, fighting the media in court – despite this leading to further publicity – and winning. Mosley was seemingly unperturbed by the exposures. He had been publicly shamed, but did not feel shame himself.

Ronson wanted to know whether Mosley’s emotional resilience could be replicated, so he joined a class run by Brad Blanton, who specialises in helping people overcome shame. Blanton’s technique is to invite course participants to reveal their deepest secrets to each other and discover that the feared consequences do not occur. Ronson observed a seeming competition by those present to reveal the most horrifying information about themselves – for example, having sex with cats – and was castigated when he himself could tell only of a few pallid transgressions of good taste. This deshaming technique seemed to be a dead end.

Brad Blanton

            Ronson’s journey then took him in another direction: what to do for a person whose Google profile is overwhelmed by abusive comment. After public shaming episodes, Google searches for the person’s name bring up one derogatory comment after another. In Europe, there is now a right to be forgotten: requests can be made to Google to remove links. However, this works imperfectly for a number of reasons, including that there are some people publicising those who have sought Google-search invisibility and because searches outside Europe will still give the undesired results.

Ronson discovered a firm of reputation managers who, for a hefty fee, manipulate Google rankings. Ronson wanted to watch this in action, so he asked the firm if they would waive the fee if he could follow the operation and write about it — thereby providing publicity. Ronson found the ideal candidate for this treatment in Lindsay Stone, a disability worker who liked iconoclastic stunts, and who made the mistake of posting a photo of her shooting the bird (raising her middle finger) in front of a military cemetery. She was savaged on the web, and every search for “Lindsay Stone” led to abusive comments about her. She lost her job and became depressed, all for a silly prank. Others named Lindsay Stone were affected too: their Google profiles were obscured by the vitriol directed at the transgressing Lindsay Stone.

The reputation-management firm interviewed Stone, found out about positive or neutral aspects of her life, and gradually put up positive mentions about her (and other Lindsay Stones too). In a matter of months, the abusive comments were pushed to page 2 on Google, where few searchers bother to examine the links. However, to maintain this state of affairs, continuing efforts were required. This service doesn’t come cheap. Stone was exempted from the fee, but for others it might cost $100,000. Manipulating Google rankings is not easy for ordinary people who incur the wrath of an online mob.


            Ronson, in studying public shaming, is on to an important topic. Shame is a crucially important emotion, and can be used for positive or negative purposes. On the positive side, shaming can be used as a method of rehabilitation: when people break laws and hurt others, the usual criminal sanctions are trials, fines and imprisonment. An alternative is meeting face-to-face with victims, making an apology and doing work in restitution. This approach can be a powerful and humane way of reintegrating transgressors into the community.

Crime, shame and reintegration

            On the other hand, shame can be debilitating. In schools and workplaces, students and workers are constantly compared with each other and encouraged to feel ashamed when they do not measure up to expectations. Eventually, individuals start shaming themselves. For example, when they see a co-worker who is more productive, better looking or more vivacious, they feel bad about themselves. This is especially common in toxic work environments where bullying is rife. One part of surviving in such environments is to not accept the judgements of others and not to shame oneself, as addressed by Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare in their book Work Abuse.

This was the challenge Ronson pondered when interviewing Max Mosley, who did not feel ashamed by the publicity about his sex orgies. Journalists and others tried to shame Mosley, but he was having none of it: he did not feel it personally.

Max Mosley
Max Mosley

The crucial step in challenging damaging shaming rituals is to refuse to accept the judgement of others. With emotional distance and independence, it is possible then to think in a clear way about responses. If shaming only affected emotions, this would be a complete response, but shaming rituals affect friends, many of whom drop away, and employers, who may fire or refuse to hire the target of abuse.

Shaming is not inherently bad. What is wrong is when it is disproportionate to what a person has done and serves no positive purpose. If someone is guilty of a violent assault or of stealing millions of dollars of investor funds, then shame can be a valuable tool for reintegration into society, with a changed consciousness that reduces the risk of repeat offences. But when the transgression is minor, such as making a racist or sexist remark, it hardly seems fair that a person’s reputation is trashed and career ended. This is not to excuse racist and sexist remarks, but there are so many of them that a harsh penalty for an unlucky target is unfair. If thousands of people jaywalk every day, it is not fair to single out one particular jaywalker for a massive fine or a stint in jail.

Ronson says that public shamings have a mob aspect, and he regrets having participated in many such shamings before he embarked on his investigation. To me, these collective manifestations of abuse suggest a role for the psychological process called projection, in which individuals disown a negative part of their own personality and attribute it to others, sometimes attacking them. A classic example is homophobia, in which men refuse to accept their own homosexual urges, seeing them as terrible, and instead see them in others, and attack those others.

In public shamings, participants are able to feel better about themselves in two ways. First, they feel good because their own transgressive impulses, for example to think inappropriate things, are disowned and attributed to a single target, who can be safely condemned and abused through electronic means. Secondly, they obtain the warm feeling of being part of a crowd with a common purpose. This is togetherness in righteousness. Ronson points out that public shamings are serving to narrow the bounds of permissible behaviour. Everyone must conform, otherwise they risk assault by the crowd.

Jon Ronson

            The cases chosen by Ronson highlight the arbitrariness of public rituals of spontaneous condemnation, with most of the targets he has selected being just unfortunate. There is another type of public shaming, when it is instigated as a tool in a type of power struggle. Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist and public commentator, was targeted by his opponents, who covertly recorded one of his talks and posted a misleadingly labelled excerpt from it, with the express intent of damaging Flanagan’s credibility and career. Flanagan’s methods of responding, described in his book Persona Non Grata, are a model for others. Some dissident scientists are subject to degradation rituals intended to cast them out of the scientific community – and there are ways for them to resist.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is the most entertaining book on shame available, and might serve as a warning to be careful about what you put online. A more important message is to avoid joining in episodes of public shaming.


Brian Martin

Bad behaviour in disasters

Some disasters bring out the very worst in human behaviour, as described in the frightening and illuminating book No Mercy.

 No Mercy

What do people do in a disaster? Panic? Actually, collective behaviour in many disasters is surprisingly rational.

During the Cold War, US planners prepared for the ultimate disaster, a nuclear attack, and looked to other sorts of disasters to find out what might happen. They found a relatively comforting picture: most people protected themselves and those closest to them, and many were altruistic, helping anyone they could. Only a relatively few descended into antisocial behaviours such as looting and shooting.

More recently, Amanda Ripley in her book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why described people’s responses to crisis situations, for example being in an aircraft when it crashes. Only a few panic and only a few quickly take the most sensible action, leaving the aircraft. Most are simply stunned and do nothing – which can be deadly if the plane explodes.

However, there is another potential response to disaster, evoked in some situations: extreme selfishness, including willingness to kill.

No Mercy

Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff in their book No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013) reveal the depths of human behaviour. The authors collected numerous stories from historical accounts of shipwrecks, aeroplane crashes and sieges. The circumstances in their chosen cases were particularly dire. A relatively small number of individuals, from a handful to several hundred, were stranded in circumstances in which their lives were at risk. Rescue was not imminent, and drowning or starvation was a prospect. The result, in some cases, was cruelty and selfishness so extreme as to make readers question their understandings of human nature.

William Brown
William Brown

On the night of 19 April 1841, the ship William Brown struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank. The crew took most of the places in the two boats available, leaving many passengers on the ship to drown. Of the two craft, the longboat was more crowded, and it leaked. By the second night, crew on the boat started to select passengers to be thrown overboard to their death, even as the wind died down and there was no risk of sinking. And so they continued, throwing one passenger after another, both men and women, overboard into the icy water, until 16 were dead. Half an hour later, a passing vessel rescued the remaining survivors on the longboat.

Learmonth and Tabakoff give lots of detail about this case, and much of it is even more horrifying than this summary. Only one of the killers was charged with a crime; he spent six months in prison.

Other stories of disaster in No Mercy describe equally appalling human behaviour, including cannibalism. They involve different centuries and nationalities, with seagoing nations heavily represented.

It is easy to say, “I would never do anything like this.” Perhaps not, but it’s hard to know if you’ve never been in the same circumstances. Privation and starvation, and the threat of imminent death, can change many people’s behaviour.

An experiment and a novel

Throughout No Mercy, Learmonth and Tabakoff weave information from two books, each published in 1954. The first was titled The Robbers Cave Experiment, and reported a study of group dynamics.


Two groups of 11-year-old boys were observed in a camp setting in the US state of Oklahoma, where they were left pretty much to their own devices for a week, while camp staff unobtrusively provided facilities and services, and watched. Unbeknownst to the boys, the staff were researchers.

Then each group of boys was allowed to become aware of the other group, in a situation of mild rivalry. What happened next was disturbing. Each group treated the other group as an enemy, and verbal abuse escalated into hostile raids. Just as important as the inter-group rivalry was the transformation of internal dynamics, with leaders emerging who castigated softness. The researchers had to call off the experiment before it became physically dangerous.


The Robbers Cave experiment is famous in the annals of the psychology of groups. It shows the tendency for members of randomly composed groups to bond quickly and to treat outsiders as enemies, even when the others are basically just like them. The experiment took place using well-adjusted middle-class boys in an industrialised country without any privation. It shows the dangerous potential for group loyalty to descend into violence.

The other book published in 1954 was Lord of the Flies, a famous novel by William Golding. The fictional story starts with the contrivance of a group of young British boys being stranded on an island alone after an aeroplane crash in which all the adults are killed. Rivalries and superstitions develop, and scapegoats are picked out for sacrifice, culminating in murder.

Lord of the flies

Golding’s story was fictional, but it was inspired by his personal experiences. He had been a schoolteacher for a decade and observed his pupils closely, including in casual experiments on field trips in which he manipulated circumstances in ways not unlike the Robbers Cave experimenters. Though Golding portrayed his insights fictionally, they eerily mirrored what was happening across the world in Oklahoma.

Learmonth and Tabakoff use these two books as templates for understanding what happened in the cases they describe. Of the two books, Lord of the Flies is far better known, and many people were disturbed to imagine that such a scenario might be possible in reality. No Mercy is testimony that Golding was too optimistic: in certain extreme circumstances, some humans can descend into savagery much more quickly than Golding’s fictional portrayal, in a matter of days rather than months.


No Mercy is not all bad news. The authors also describe some cases in which a small number of disaster survivors, in dire circumstances, worked together in a humane and supportive fashion, resulting in better prospects for survival and rescue. Some cases featured valiant and altruistic behaviour. What factors make a difference?

Learmonth and Tabakoff say leadership is crucial. If formal leaders are selfish, cruel and unfair, prospects are grimmer: a new informal leadership may emerge, usually mimicking the original ones. But when formal leaders are supportive and fair, the odds are better for good behaviour. For example, some leaders ensure that everyone – even those likely to die soon – received an equal allocation of scarce food supplies, thereby helping bond the survivors in a common commitment to the group.

No Mercy can be gruelling at times, but it has important messages. One of them is that humans can be tribal in a highly dangerous way, as shown by the Robbers Cave experiment, even when there is no survival advantage to the group. There are parallels in quite a few contemporary social problems, including mobbing (collective bullying), partisan party politics and genocide.

At the conclusion of No Mercy, Learmonth and Tabakoff return to a question they posed at the beginning of their book:

As a template for social decay, how accurate is the Lord of the Flies principle?

            The answer is inescapable – exceptionally accurate. William Golding’s work followed with almost pinpoint precision all of the main aspects of the implosion of a failed group:

– neglect of the weak and sick;

– a rapid descent into bickering over resources and labour;

– the corrosive, emotional effect of hunger, paranoia and fear;

– the collapse of leadership;

– fragmentation into hostile factions;

– the emergence of personal hatred;

– an absolute loss of compassion and altruism;

– casual acceptance of death;

– violent fights that escalate into murder and, finally, the emergence of killing for entertainment. (pp. 280-281)

Learmonth and Tabakoff conclude the main text with a list of ways to avoid the Lord of the Flies principle. I will conclude with them here. But before reading them, I invite you to pick a political, economic, social or religious framework – for example feminism, neoliberalism, socialism or Buddhism – and see how it would serve survival in a disaster scenario, according to the following 13 recommendations. This can be a revealing exercise.


  1. As soon as disaster strikes, get rid of any alcohol.
  2. Acknowledge the situation has changed: the group should be free to choose a new leader – someone they can trust to make decisions for the good of the group.
  3. As soon as possible, establish order and a routine.
  4. Never allow the weak to die in order to save the strong – survivor maths is a fatal game.
  5. Share resources and workloads equally among the survivors, regardless of rank.
  6. Use a rotating work schedule.
  7. Communicate. Silence is your enemy.
  8. Stay busy, even if it seems pointless.
  9. The leader must be accountable and replaceable.
  10. Fragmentation is almost inevitable, but the leader must control factional discord.
  11. Have a plan. If it fails, make a new plan.
  12. If one faction begins to dominate and victimise the rest, it is imperative the remainder organise and defend themselves. Once murders commence, they tend to escalate.
  13. Fight the mindset of individual self-preservation – we are communal creatures and we survive best in groups. (p. 287)

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments on a draft.

An online mobbing

Tom Flanagan was mobbed online. His experience provides several sorts of lessons.

Tom Flanagan
Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist, worked for 45 years at the University of Calgary. He became a prominent public figure, appearing on television and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. He also had experience in the political system, having served as campaign manager for several politicians seeking office.

Along the way, Flanagan made some enemies. Much of his research related to First Nations and their claims over land, and he took a position contrary to activists in the area. Flanagan’s political leanings might be characterised as conservative: he had managed campaigns for conservative politicians.

On 27 February 2013, Flanagan gave a talk at the University of Lethbridge. Unknown to him, some First Nation activists attended and planned to use the talk to discredit him. They secretly recorded his talk and asked him a question about an extraneous topic, about which he had once made a passing comment: child pornography.

In the several hours it took Flanagan to drive home the next morning, a social media storm blew up, leaving his reputation in tatters. An extract of his talk, out of context, had been posted on YouTube with the misleading tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” Before long, he was widely denounced, including by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, for whom Flanagan had once been campaign manager, by the premier of Alberta, and by numerous mainstream media outlets, with front-page stories.

MacDougall tweet
A hostile tweet

Flanagan soon lost many of the connections he had built up over the years. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cancelled his contract and his own university put out a weak-kneed media release.

Several things about this storm of protest especially annoyed Flanagan. First, he had only made passing comments about child pornography; it wasn’t a topic he had carefully investigated. Second, he had been speaking to an academic audience, in his teacher role in which he tried to stimulate thinking about the topic, but his enemies had treated it as a political opportunity to catch him out and discredit him.

Third, his views on child pornography had been seriously misrepresented. He opposed child pornography, and had only said that penalties for merely viewing it (in Canada, a minimum of several months in prison) might be too stiff. Fourth, those who denounced him and his views had not waited to hear Flanagan’s perspective before rushing to make public comment.

Vulnerability to online mobbing

Mobbing is collective bullying. It’s when a group of people combine to attack a target by abuse, undermining, sidelining, defaming and otherwise causing harm to a person’s morale and reputation. Most commonly, mobbing occurs in workplaces, when a group of workers — usually including the boss, though not always — use verbal and physical methods against a fellow worker. Flanagan experienced a different sort of mobbing. His attackers were online, whereas his colleagues were largely supportive of him.

Flanagan in his book Persona Non Grata (discussed below) says several factors were involved in the online mobbing he experienced. One is that the news cycle has sped up enormously. Before the Internet, it would take a day or two for a story to be taken up widely. Now it can occur in minutes. In the face of a crowd baying for blood, politicians and public bodies did not want to wait a day for claims to be checked out. Instead, they made statements immediately to reduce the potential harm to themselves of being seen as sympathetic to Flanagan’s alleged views.

Another factor is that Flanagan had enemies who were unscrupulous. They set him up with a leading question, made a recording without telling him, produced a clip omitting context, posted it on YouTube with a misleading label and started raising the alert about it. Most people never acquire enemies like this. Flanagan, by being a public commentator who was willing to challenge orthodox views in some areas, was vulnerable.

A third factor in Flanagan’s case was moral panic, which is widespread alarm about an issue out of all proportion to its actual harm. In his book, Flanagan traces the evolution of moral panics over child sexual abuse, including claims about Satanic rituals at US preschools and claims based on recovered memories, in which innocent workers and parents were charged with crimes and some of them imprisoned despite lack of any material evidence. Child pornography, he says, is the latest version of this genre of moral panic. By making comments questioning the severe penalties for viewing child pornography, Flanagan entered territory in which the merest association with a topic can create a stigma.


Finally, Flanagan says online mobbing occurs because so few people check out the facts before passing judgement. Hundreds of people who didn’t know Flanagan personally were willing to condemn him without hearing his side of the story. Even worse, some individuals who knew him well, sometimes for many years, condemned him without hearing his side first. The rush to judgement overwhelmed their critical capacity: they assumed he was guilty as charged and apparently were afraid of being seen to support him, so they joined the attack.


Flanagan says that if he had been expecting an attack and had been closely monitoring social media, he might have been able to organise resistance at the very beginning and prevent the worst consequences. However, his attackers had operated surreptitiously. While driving home, listening to music, he received initial word of the media storm, but was not well placed to mount a concerted response. Anyway, why should someone like him — an academic who had just given a guest lecture at another university — have to be constantly monitoring social media just in case of adverse comments?

When he got home, he discovered the scale and seriousness of the attack and started responding. Luckily, he still had friends and supporters, and he was able to write explanatory articles in several influential publications. Furthermore, his colleagues at the University of Calgary were largely supportive. Flanagan, having been a campaign manager for several political candidates, knew quite a lot about media dynamics and management, far more than some others who have been targets of virtual mobbing. Even so, he felt overwhelmed, noting that a rushed response, while under siege and before he obtained full information, might make things even worse.

One of Flanagan’s sympathisers arranged an opportunity to write a book, and that is what he did. Before the end of the year, he finished writing Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014). Flanagan had written many previous books, so he was quite capable of such a rapid yet considered response.


Persona Non Grata

Flanagan’s book is a powerful account of his experiences and an indictment of his attackers. One thing that makes the book powerful is his clear, engaging narrative. His treatment is careful and measured, with some degree of outrage to be sure, but more along the lines of being a concerned investigation into a problem about which he has first-hand experience.

By being clear, informative, calm and readable, Persona Non Grata will reach audiences who had never heard about Flanagan before and who would be unsympathetic to his political views. I wrote an article, “When you’re criticised,” on how to respond to attacks, recommending writing a response that is clear, calm and factual, and that is what Flanagan has done in his book.

One of the features of Persona Non Grata is a chapter on penalties for possessing child pornography. As he describes, he had never had more than a passing interest in this topic, but because a false representation of his views was the pretext for mobbing him, he started investigating further. He addresses various arguments and, while expressing his abhorrence at the production of child pornography, and his personal distaste for it, he affirms his previous tentative view that mandatory jail sentences for only possessing or viewing child pornography may be excessive. This is his careful, considered riposte to those who mobbed him.

Academic freedom

In the urgency of the initial online mobbing, the University of Calgary, Flanagan’s long-time employer, issued a statement that was pathetically weak. Flanagan was especially disappointed that an academic institution would put out such a statement without waiting a few extra hours to consult with him. So in Persona Non Grata, Flanagan devotes a chapter to academic freedom.

He gives one of the most cogent accounts of the arguments for academic freedom in the classroom that I have read. Most studies of academic freedom focus on research, inquiry and public comment. Flanagan, in giving attention to teaching, spells out the justification for academics being given the opportunity to teach what they want in the way they want, as well as to speak out on issues of public importance. He is well aware that academics are inhibited and constrained in various ways, and gives good reasons to continue claiming academic freedom as an important contribution to students and society.

Professors have to have room to discover what works well for them, in their discipline, with their personality, with their particular bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Typical undergraduate students at a large university will be exposed to perhaps three dozen instructors in the course of getting a bachelor’s degree. Out of those three dozen, they will probably find a small handful that seemed especially memorable and another handful that seemed like a complete waste of time or worse. But the variety gives all students a chance to find at least a few inspirational professors whose memory can be cherished for a lifetime. If that doesn’t happen, the student has been cheated. (pp. 162–163)

Flanagan tells about some of the students in his classes over the years, and what careers they have entered, many of them taking different political trajectories than Flanagan himself.


Quite a number of individuals have been caught in a whirlwind of online abuse and condemnation, which harms their reputations and careers far out of proportion to their alleged misdemeanours, as astutely described by one of the leading researchers into academic mobbing, Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues. Tom Flanagan has produced the most insightful and readable account available of what it is like to be a target of an online mob. In Persona Non Grata he has shown how to rise above the abuse and respond in a calm, reflective fashion that is the exact opposite of the way he was treated.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Zoë Barker and Ian Miles for helpful feedback on drafts.