Disturbing new research has found that Facebook users are more likely to blame victims for online abuse than the perpetrators because people may have become numb to cyberbullying.
Cyber psychology researchers Dr Chris Hand, a lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), and Dr Graham Scott, from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) found there is little public sympathy or support for victims of cyber abuse.
For the very first time, experts have analysed the relationship between victim attractiveness and how the public blame victims of cyberbullying or stalking. These results could be used to highlight unconscious biases for those who support victims such as police, teachers and counsellors, and employers.
Dr Hand said: “We asked the public to rate how much the abuse was the victim’s fault and people consistently perceived it was something about them, they were responsible for it or they provoked the abuse even though they’ve said something as mundane as ‘ going out for dinner’. It is really quite scary.
“We set out to test the relationship between attractiveness and blame. We found that if someone was more physically or socially attractive, they were less likely to be blamed for the abuse and got more sympathy.
“Our results could be due to an observer desensitization effect, or that participants interpreted the posts as indicative of friendly ‘teasing’ or ‘banter’ within an established social relationship.
“A lot of comments are not horseplay, but malicious, and I think we need to understand about how we support people more. Everyone should be able to use social media safely and responsibly but we don’t see that.
“We hope this research will give those who deal with cases of cyberbullying such as police, counsellors, teachers and employers a better understanding of how reasonable we perceive victims.”
The research involved creating fake Facebook profiles using photo-editing software which were never made live online and no real people were subject to abuse. All permissions were sought and the study was fully reviewed by a research ethics committee.
Researchers set up an equal number of male and female accounts using common names like John and Monica with basic profile photos, and the number of friends was controlled so as not to skew results of social attractiveness.
Mundane comments were posted on the fake profiles such as ‘Roll on 5 o’clock, going out for dinner with my pals’ or ‘Really glad to finish that project at work’ and researchers responded with a range of positive, neutral and abusive comments, some as strongly worded as ‘I hope you die’, to make them look like they had come from real people.
Researchers recruited 164 members of the public with an age range of 18-59 to study each profile and its contents, they were asked to fill out a ratings questionnaire about how much they thought the profile owner was to blame for the abuse and negative comments.
The public were also asked how physically or socially attractive they found the profile owners and about task attractiveness – which means if you would want to work with this person – because a growing number of employers are scanning potential workers’ digital footprint.
Dr Hand said: “In the majority of cases people blamed the victim. The overall findings were quite surprising because the victims didn’t get a lot of support or sympathy.
“There are two main reasons why people do this – one is that we believe bad things happen to bad people and the other is because we see some of ourselves in the perpetrators. If you see some of yourself in the perpetrator you start to look for reasons to blame the victim."