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Unmasking Cyberbullies with Social Media Listening

Every day for 20 minutes, Karen Masullo logs into her Social Relationship Platform  and begins to scan the conversations of strangers. They roll in by the dozens in real time, most harmless and uninteresting.

This morning, though, one picture stands out. It’s a young man, in a school 545 kilometers away, and he has posed for a picture with a handgun in a classroom. The picture is posted by a student to Twitter.

“Holy $%#* He brought a gun to school!” a student tweets. Another student questions the authenticity of the image. He asks, “Is this even our school?” to which the original poster replies, “Yes, in my 2nd block.”

Masullo works for Firestorm, a company that helps schools and universities protect students from individuals who exhibit behaviors of concern, behaviors that include social media messaging. The company has worked with institutions such as Virginia Tech after the shootings, Littleton, as well as for the Jefferson County School District in Colorado, where the Columbine, Deer Creek, and Platte Canyon school shootings took place.

Although the social account that posted the image was anonymous, Masullo was able to identify the school and contacted the principal. It turned out that the image, although shared by his students, wasn’t actually taken in his school. While relieved, the principle was disappointed that despite being seen, shared, and commented on by several of his students, nobody reported anything to a teacher.

Extreme incidents of school violence—whether a school shooting or a teen driven to suicide from cyberbullying—attract a lot of media attention. But discussions of how to prevent future tragedies often neglect the fact that these crises began with a long trail of social media data. Teens seem unconcerned that whatever they post on social media sites can be found whether that’s by a teacher or a security expert in a different city.

It’s this social data that Masullo believe to be critical to early detection and intervention against threats, cyberbullying, and students in crises.

“School violence, sexual abuse, sexting, bullying and many other offenses are occurring with greater frequency,” says Masullo. “But social platforms such as Hootsuite’s deep social listening analytics have actually given us a great advantage in identifying risk earlier through our Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment (we call it BeRThA), but only if we are looking.”

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Unmasking cyberbullies

While Masullo is an expert at Social Media Risk Management and conducts sophisticated analysis and monitoring of student language use, semantics, syntax, and idioms in order to prevent incidents of violence, this particular image was simply on Twitter.

The image could have been easily spotted by a teacher or school principal. That’s because in recent years social listening platforms have become much more accessible. You don’t need to be a data analyst to spot a threat or zoom into a geographical region to see the social media activity of your students.

When it comes to cyberbullying, the anonymity of the attacks often trigger a sense of moral panic among the public. It seems that the anonymous nature of social profiles has created a new breed of faceless bullying. Social media communities such as Reddit, 4Chan, and the comment sections of YouTube offer ample examples of anonymous and disturbingly group-fueled attacks. Even back in 2006, anonymous users on sites like 4Chan tormented the families of victims, people they had never met.

Sameer Hinduja, the Co-Director, Cyberbullying Research Center and Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, says that while such extreme cases of anonymous cyberbullying continue to occur, it’s the exception, not the norm. “Often the victim knows who the cyberbully is. In many instances, the students being bullied offline are also being bullied online.”

The Cyberbullying Research Center has been collecting data from middle and high school students since 2002, surveying nearly 15,000 students from middle and high schools from across the United States in 10 unique projects. According to the data they’ve collected, it’s also a myth that cyberbullying occurs more often than traditional bullying.

They’ve found that 35-40% of teens across their lifetime have experienced traditional bullying at least once, whereas only 20% of teens have experienced cyberbullying.

This offers hope for teachers and parents. It means that while there will be extreme cases of cyberbullying, the large majority of aggressors are likely sitting right in the classroom. Their tweets can be tracked and their behavior detected early.

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Student barriers to reporting cyberbullies

As the Firestorm story showed, teens are reluctant to use traditional systems of reporting. While teens are most comfortable with SMS, messaging apps, and social media, many of our reporting systems for cyberbullying are outdated such as telephone lines or reporting in person to counsellors.

“We’ve found that youth are hesitant to go to adults,” says Dr. Hinduja. “Anonymous reporting systems are much more efficient and while getting teens to talk to counselors is good, it often isn’t easy to get them in the door.”

The Crisis Text Line, a New York-based nonprofit that offers crisis counseling by text message, has helped 70,000 people since it launched a year ago, with a heavy emphasis on teens. As a volunteer told the Atlantic, it’s a fitting medium for teens as they can “text privately on the bus or from the bathroom stall without anyone hearing what [they’re] going through.”

Schools can also learn from large organizations such as airlines or telecom companies. These companies use social listening to scan for customers in distress and then resolve their issue on social media. For example, Social Relationship Platforms like Hootsuite allow a coordinated and fast response to tweets or social messages asking for help.

With Hootsuite, for example, a national anti-bullying organization could set up national and regional teams. Each team would search for instances of cyberbullying. This could involve a wide scan such as YouTube videos that indicate alarming behavior, Twitter messages with abusive language, student confessions or cries for help on Tumblr, and Reddit threads.

Teachers and volunteers could then route the message to an appropriate team such as the police, a trained counselor, or local teacher. With local and national coordination, a lot more ground could be covered.

As Omar Murji, the Executive Director of the Canadian Anti-Bullying Coalition put it, “bullying is something that we can easily catch. It has signs and symptoms and can be detected early. We need to train and show schools how to identify bullying early on.”

Using a Social Relationship Platform to broadly monitor and send alarming messages to the right expert is a good first step.

Defining teacher responsibility

In many ways, teachers are facing pressure to police the digital schoolyard in addition to physical spaces.

Twenty-four US states have enacted legislation that requires schools to filter internet materials and develop internet safety policies. Similar legislation and use of filtering in schools has been gaining ground in the UK, Australia, and Ireland.

One tactic many schools might not be aware of is that it’s relatively easy to zoom in on social media activity by location.

For example, you can set up a standard search—say an eight-kilometer radius of a classroom—and then see the tweets and content posted in that geographical area.

With Twitter, you can use their advanced geo-targeted search features to increase cyberbullying reporting. If a student tweets “I hate my life” or posts keywords that a counsellor identifies as troubling language, a school or anti-bullying organization could run a geo-targeted campaign that picks up on those keywords. With a Social Relationship Platform, the school or organization could automatically send a response to the teen, offering a link to an online bullying reporting system or school resources.

That way, the teen in trouble (or even the bully, depending on what types of keywords you want to target) would see the tweet in their timeline, letting them know that there is help nearby.

But are schools really responsible for policing social media activity?

According to Dr. Hinduja, the short answer is yes. If an interaction offline or online happens between two students and this conflict bleeds over into the school, they have to respond. As he puts it, “teachers need to create an environment where students feel safe.”

Monitoring social media conversations that happen near schoolyards is important. But listening is only the first step, says Masullo.

“Social listening has to be combined with a plan for response. For example, we set up Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment programs to identify at risk students and employees. This helps you locate troubling behaviour long before they progress down a path of violence or ever want to cause harm to begin with.”

How to catch a cyberbully

Of all the people in the world, teachers face the most pressure to combat cyberbullying. “Parents expect schools to keep their children safe,” says Masullo, “but schools are finding it difficult to keep pace with the rate of change. It’s really tough on teachers, especially since the legal definitions of what actually constitutes cyberbullying is still being evolved.”

While it can seem overwhelming, there are simple things to do. Here are five basic steps to use social listening to identify potential cyberbullies in your school district or campus.

1) Automatically monitor for cyberbullying. You can then set-up a specific search in Hootsuite and this data will be ready to review every day. You can zoom in by location as well, say to monitor social activity that happens within 5, 10, or 25 kilometers from the school or campus.

Set-up time 5-10 minutes. Begin here.

2) Review this stream for 5-10 minutes every day. Any incidents can be investigated. If you find a person engaging in cyberbullying, just drill down into their tweets. They’ll likely mention their school in some form or share other revealing information.

3) Assign and report to experts. You can set up different teams in Hootsuite. For example, let’s say a teacher finds a student posting troubling YouTube videos. You could route that tweet to a school counselor for them to follow-up with. You can also encourage volunteers to respond to instances of cyberbullying (such as parents). If parents or volunteers find a student being abused by their peers, they could give the direct link to an online reporting system, or a Help Line or Chat link.

Set-up time (depends on size of team). Begin here.

4) Archive the evidence. Once a cyberbullying incident occurs, social media users will usually quickly delete the online evidence. With Social Relationship Platforms, you can automatically archive specific messages. So if a teacher sees a troubling social media message, they can make sure that the evidence is stored for later review and analysis.

Watch how leading education and governmental agencies use Hootsuite’s archiving solution. Video with practical steps here.

5) Raise awareness and automate. Teachers are busy and you won’t have time to constantly monitor tweets, posts, videos, pictures, or track down aggressors. Enlist the help of parents, students, counselors, anti-bullying organizations, and local police. Once everyone is listening and tagging social media statuses, it will be easier to sort through your saved search streams and delegate responsibilities to the right experts. With a Social Relationship Platform, all of this can be done in a single secure dashboard, even if you have thousands of volunteers from around the nation.

Learn how to set-up local and national teams here.

Additional cyberbullying resources for schools

Talk to Hootsuite’s Education experts for more guidance about how Hootsuite Enterprise can help your school monitor social media activity and reduce instances of cyberbullying.

In the US, many states have enacted laws pertaining to cyberbullying or electronic harassment. This Brief Review of State Cyberbullying Laws and Policies  provides a summary of actions taken to date in 50 US states.

The National Council of State Legislatures has a summary of Laws Relating to Filtering, Blocking and Usage Policies in Schools and Libraries.

This research study offers an international perspective on internet filtering in schools and library, including legislation and filtering perspectives in UK, Sweden, Australia, Ireland, Denmark, and The Netherlands.

You can find data and tools to deal with cyberbullying at both the Canadian Anti-Bullying Coalition and the Cyberbullying Research Center.

For more information about how Firestorm helps schools and organizations manage and prevent crises, they regularly offer webinars, on-demand training, and insightful research.