Personal Injury

Cyberbullying battle needs unified effort: Burrison

By Tony Poland, Associate Editor

The fight against cyberbullying takes a concerted effort from individuals, internet stakeholders and governments, says Toronto personal injury lawyer Alison Burrison.

“There are concrete things that can be done, and the law is slowly evolving when it comes to that,” says Burrison, founder of Burrison Law. “Schools are becoming more responsible for cleaning up this type of content online, but the bigger issue is what can we do from a big-picture perspective because social media is global.

“I’m encouraged that people and countries of influence are saying this is an issue we need to address and that we can’t just leave it up to individual companies.”

Last fall, Prince William called on the world’s leading social media outlets to “reject the false choice of profits over values” and make a more concentrated effort to battle cyberbullying.

The Duke of Cambridge said “on every challenge they face — fake news, extremism, polarization, hate speech, trolling, mental health, privacy, and bullying — our tech leaders seem to be on the back foot,” the Guardian reported.

“Technology companies still have a great deal to learn about the responsibilities that come with significant power,” he said in a speech to highlight Anti-Bullying Week in England.

Burrison tells that cyberbullying can be tough to detect because it is not always blatant.

She says the leading social media platforms have programs to detect various types of off-limits content, including nudity, child exploitation and terrorism-related material, but classifying bullying is a bigger challenge because doing so often depends on the context of a social interaction.

“Sometimes it’s more subtle,” Burrison says. “How do you pick up on a picture that looks totally normal with a comment that says ‘wish you were here’ when it’s someone who was purposely excluded from the event?”

Burrison says it’s important for prominent people like Prince William to call on social media companies to be responsible and vigilant.

“What the Duke of Cambridge is trying to say to these tech companies is ‘you’re incredibly wealthy and incredibly powerful and influencing where the social media platforms go and what’s permissible on them,’” she says.

Burrison also praises efforts by the French government, which is proposing a regulatory board to fight cyberbullying. This government body, she says, will have sweeping power to fine large social media companies if they don’t adequately remove hateful content.

While the big social media outlets have pledged to address the problem, an autonomous body could be more effective, Burrison says. However, it won’t be easy getting full support from all social media sites, she notes.

Burrison points to China's TikTok which reportedly collects data from users of its lip-synching app. She says there’s nothing to force Chinese social media companies from complying with governing bodies such as the one proposed in France.

“It’s voluntary, and you can’t overreach into another country like China and tell them they should comply with this.”

Burrison says, with a very fast-growing industry combined with the youth driving it, it only makes sense that some kind of governing body exists.

She says Canada has work to do to combat cyberbullying.

“I don’t think we’re idly sitting back — we’re very aware that this is an issue. It is definitely not something we’re turning a blind eye to in North America,” Burrison says. “I think we’re more in the investigation stages of what happened, what is being done with this data and how social media companies are protecting people’s privacy and fighting cyberbullying.”

She says she believes the French initiative will spread to the European Union and North America won’t be far behind.

“France is a bit more advanced in recognizing the issues and regulating social media platforms, and I think North America will follow suit,” Burrison says.

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