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Haters gonna hate – dealing with cyberhate for directors

type
Article
author
By Institute of Directors
date
27 Feb 2020
read time
3 min to read
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Cyberhate is a product of the digital world and board members are not immune from attack.

The term can be used to describe various forms of online abuse and harassment including cyberbullying and trolling. 

Board members, like other leaders, are often in the public eye and they can be targets online – for example in social media, blogs, forums, emails and online newsfeeds. It is common to hear of high profile personalities being trolled. But it happens to people in local communities as well, including small business owners and not-for-profit volunteers. Last year, for instance, the owner of a pony trekking business in Nelson closed it temporarily after she was subject to a stream of online abuse on a community Facebook page in relation to the condition of one of her ponies.  

Board members are accountable to shareholders and other stakeholders, and can be subject to significant public scrutiny in some cases. There are times when directors will take heat from shareholders for various matters including organisational performance. They may also field complaints and criticism from other stakeholders such as dissatisfied customers and the media. Cyberhate is different – it goes beyond this to personal abuse and harassment.   

Real-life impact

Cyberhate can have real-life consequences for its victims including mental and emotional stress, feeling physically unsafe, and damage to a victim’s reputation. This was highlighted by Australian journalist, author and cyberhate expert, Ginger Gorman at the IoD’s 2019 Leadership Conference and in her book Troll Hunting: 

“The cost of cyberhate is not just ‘hurt feelings’ as trolls love to claim. Predator trolls are wrecking lives and can cause people to harm themselves and lose their jobs…They may damage a person’s reputation so the victim becomes unemployable … it’s a type of ‘economic vandalism’ and, in cases where a person is online for their work, may represent a new form of workplace harassment. The harms are both physical and psychological.”
- Troll Hunting, Hardie Grant Books, 2019

Online harassment and bullying topped the personal harm categories reported in the latest report of Netsafe, New Zealand’s independent, non-profit online safety organisation. A report commissioned by Netsafe also shows that when quantified the estimated cost of societal impacts of cyber bullying in New Zealand was $444m (in 2018).

Responding to cyberhate

Cyberhate can be difficult to address and many cases aren’t reported because those affected don’t know how to handle it or who to turn to for assistance.

Some suggested strategies for board members to manage personal instances of cyberhate are set out below.

  • Don’t engage: depending on the circumstances, this may be the best strategy. This can avoid adding fuel to the fire and giving comments more air online.
  • Block early, block often: block (where you have this ability) anyone online who is threatening or abusive.
  • Set the record straight: there may be times where it is appropriate to correct any factual inaccuracies, rumours, misinformation or lies.
  • Take the high ground: ensure your responses are well thought out. Keep your responses calm, rational and objective and don’t allow yourself to be baited or give a “knee-jerk” response.
  • Evidence: save/screenshot any instances of cyberhate so you have a record of it if needed later.
  • Reach out and report: let your board and organisation know where relevant. Seek (and accept) advice and support. You can report any posts on social media to social media companies directly. Netsafe is available to help and advise on how to stop abuse. The Police may also need to be involved.
  • Legal advice: the circumstances may also require legal advice (eg regarding defamation). The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 is intended to guard against cyberhate, and the Human Rights Act 1993 is also relevant.

In addition to looking after your own wellbeing, directors have responsibilities for ensuring their workers are also safe online at work.

Protecting workers from cyberhate

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires workplace health and safety risks to be actively managed. Cyberhate is a health and safety risk because it can lead to physical and psychological harm. Depending on the organisation, employees may be at risk of online abuse and harassment while fulfilling their roles and responsibilities (eg this may be the case if they are posting material on social media platforms as part of their work or from dealing with disgruntled customers).

“Putting workers online without training is like sending construction workers onsite without safety equipment and preparation”.

- Ginger Gorman, 2019 IoD Leadership Conference

As part of their oversight role, boards should ensure that:

  • cyberhate risks are considered and addressed in conjunction with other health and safety risks. Some risks may be mitigated by the way workers engage with people internally and externally.
  • workers undertake training around staying safe online.
  • policies address how workers can stay safe online.
  • workers can report instances of cyberhate and receive appropriate support.
  • procedures and processes are in place to assess threats, and investigate and respond to instances of cyberhate.
  • they receive reports from management on cyberhate related matters (eg with reporting around wellbeing and bullying and harassment).

Further reading and resources

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