When does it become harassment?: An investigation of online criticism and calling out in Twitter

Kim, H., Kim, H., Kim, J., & Jang, J. (2022). When does it become harassment?: An investigation of online criticism and calling out in Twitter. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 6(CSCW2), 1–32.

Link: https://doi.org/10.1145/3555575

Open access: No

Notes: The boundaries between being ‘called out’ (a critical element of the so-called cancel culture) and being harrassed are somewhat blurry. Exploring this phenomenon, Kim and colleagues interviewed Twitter users who have been called out, have called out others, or have seen others being called out. More relevantly, they identified four elements that turn a ‘call-out’ into harassment: the scale of the response (when it becomes networked harassment), misinformation (when they spread false information about the callee), aggression (when people start insulting the callee) or transcendence (when people go beyond the issue and start harassing the person).

Across these limits between being called out and harassment, callers and callees would have different definitions as to what constitutes harassment: “Callers would employ an individualized model of harassment, focusing on if they had specifically displayed harassing behaviour, while callees would focus on the experience as a whole, not distinguishing between individual harassers or callers. This can be considered as an issue stemming from the difference in perception toward dyadic harassment and networked harassment. Traditional definitions of bullying refer to the concept of dyadic harassment, where the focus is on the individual that harasses another (p. 25).” In this context, the authors identify the need to better understand how different actors of online environments define their experiences of harassment (either as victims, harassers, or bystanders). Here, they point out that an important element in defining harassment is whether or not the callee maintains the ability to respond and engage with the issues raised. And, “if a callee is unable to engage in conversation either due to the scale of messages, or because the callers do not allow room for conversation, it could be considered as a case of harassment” (p. 24).

Abstract: Calling out, a phenomenon where people publicly broadcast their critiques of someone to a larger audience using, has become increasingly common on social media. However, there has been concerns that it could develop into harassment, deteriorating the quality of public discourse by over-punishing individuals for minor transgressions. To investigate this phenomenon, we interviewed 32 Twitter users who had been called out, had called out, or had witnessed a calling out on Twitter. We found that a key determining factor that distinguishes criticism from harassment was the callee’s ability to respond to or engage with the criticism, and that different stakeholders hold different perspectives toward how online harassment is defined. We also discovered that the distinction between callers and callees was not absolute, and that there was high interchangeability of roles both within and across events. Through these findings, we discuss design implications for the platform in promoting healthy discourse while preventing toxic behavior on social media.

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