Unravelling the Conceptual Chaos of Cyber Violence

Unravelling the Conceptual Chaos of Cyber Violence

This article aims to provide conceptual clarification so as to why cyber harassment should not be mistaken for cyber violence with the consequence of studying it within violence research. Conceptually and terminologically the article also deals with (cyber) bullying by faceless bureaucracy as a type of (cyber) harassment. The findings presented here are a brief summary of the relevant extended version of “(Cyber) Bullying by Faceless Bureaucracy in Public Research Funding: A Case Study from the Balkans”, forthcoming 2021 in “Festschrift für Hans-Jörg Albrecht”, to be published by Duncker & Humblot, Berlin (extended preprint available here).

Back in early 2017, within a project application for a research grant of the Croatian Science Foundation (CSF), I argued: “One of the greatest challenges in current violence research is the lack of a commonly accepted definition of the core subject itself: violence (Heitmeyer & Hagan 2002; Imbusch 2002). Violence and the scientific, as well as the general perception of what violence actually is, have obviously changed over time (Aebi & Linde 2016). Although the undisputed core of violence is the intentional infliction of physical harm upon another person (Popitz 1992; Nadelmann 1997), new dimensions such as psychological, verbal, economic, structural, symbolic, medial, object-related, or institutional and many other, have blurred the picture and vastly broadened the subject scope of violence research. There is a clear trend towards indefinitely stretching the term violence, up to the point where almost everything is labelled as violence and therefore in the end almost nothing presents itself as violence any more (Meyer 2002). Since meaningful impact research on this broadening of violence research’s subject scope is lacking, it is impossible to determine its effects and assess whether they are positive or negative. It is however possible to question and criticise the terminological diffusion this (d)evolution has created and to refocus violence research towards its core subject: the study of physical violence”. This still very much reflects my scientific position on the matter of a consensually acceptable subject and scope of violence research – anything beyond, though fully legit, cannot build upon the idea of a broad scientific consensus. (Note: Clearly, violence research’s subject and scope, in terms of effect(s) and impact(s) of such an understanding of violence as physical, includes the study of victims’ psychological, economic and social, as well as physical harm.)

However, being aware of all the divergent positions on the topic and wanting to assemble a truly transdisciplinarity project team, flexibility was needed and compromises had to be made. The most far-reaching compromise relates to the new dimension of cyber that has entered the area of violence research in many disciplines, and that was of particular interest to two of our prospective project team members. Personally, back in 2017, I was not convinced that a broadening of the project application’s subject and scope is scientifically justified. However, due to the aspired transdisciplinarity and out of plain curiosity, I half-heartedly, yet obviously very convincingly argued: “Currently there seems to be only one justifiable exception in the context of broadening violence research’s core subject: cyber violence, or to be terminologically more precise, cyber harassment, if we acknowledge the fact that violence is to be understood strictly in relation to physical harm. The virtual environment of cyber space has undoubtedly created new forms of threats, danger and human suffering that are by far more harmful than the mere use of a computer as modus operandi or the internet as locus operandi. Cyber harassment is in its quality a much more severe form of harassment than the conventional one. Its ease of infliction, anonymity, accessibility and opportunity, apparent virtual distance and simultaneous intimacy with the victim, and the potential spread of its hurtful consequences, together with cyber space’s stampeding invasion of our everyday reality, justify the study of cyber harassment in the context of delinquent violence (UN Broadband Commission 2015; Greenfield 2010; Tokunaga 2010; Corcoran et al. 2015; Vejmelka et al. 2017). This does not mean that research into other dimensions of violence or harassment is irrelevant, but simply argues that violence research has a consensually accepted ‘core business’”.

I was awarded the project grant and a year later we started working on our first task – the operationalisation of our project’s research subject and scope. The subject and scope of our violence research project was operationalised based on a consensual working definition that understands violence as “any intentional physical harming or killing of another person”. Conceptually, that obviously excludes cyber harassment as a research subject. Clearly, by finetuning the subject and scope of our study, on a conceptual level, we discovered that cyber harassment does no longer correspond to our project’s overall purpose, nor to our understanding of violence. So, we tried to replace the add-on cyber-component with a new component on (physical) violence in the preschool context, which would be in line with the project’s purpose and overall conceptualisation of violence (and cyber harassment). Whereas the adding of the preschool-component was accepted by CSF as a new project component, our simultaneous request for thereby replacing the cyber-component was first denied and postponed, then ignored, and finally denied (again). (Note: The project’s budget foresees no funding whatsoever for the cyber-component. It also needs to be stressed that during the project’s inception phase one of the two cyber-experts was on maternity leave, whereas the other one turned out to be justifiably unavailable for the whole duration of the project. Considering these factors in context of our striking scientific argumentation, one would have expected at least some kind of reasoning from CSF when dismissing us repeatedly. This was however not the case and up to this day we lack any kind of explanation on why our request has been denied, coercing the whole project team into studying this cyber add-on topic.) After a whole year of back and forth with CSF’s faceless bureaucracy on the matter of excluding the project’s cyber-component, at the end of last year I basically caved in light of the approaching annual evaluation and we quickly started working on a cyber harassment survey for Croatia.

In brief, on a conceptual level, the phenomenon of cyber harassment, understood as any “harassment by means of email, text (or online) messages or the internet” (Cit. European Institute for Gender Equality, cyber harassment definition) is unreconcilable with a study of violence, that is based on the understanding of violence as any intentional physical harming or killing of another person. However, this by no means implies that cyber harassment, compared to any given type of (physical) violence, is less harmful or might not even be more painful for its victims, or that it eventually might not escalate towards (physical) violence. It simply acknowledges that apples are not oranges. To use criminological terminology: violence and cyber harassment are phenomenologically on too many levels far too different, for it to make much scientific sense to study them jointly – as physical and cyber violence.

If one conceptually and terminologically constructs violence as a generic term which as two subtypes covers physical and cyber violence, then the question arises what the overarching understanding of violence should be? Most of the relevant literature on cyber violence skips to address, let alone solve, this generic problem. Instead of further trying to unravel the conceptual and terminological chaos created by the idea of cyber violence, an example shall demonstrate the diffusion (see following graphic).

Types of cyberviolence as used by the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Convention Committee (2018), p. 6.

If cyber violence is to be considered violence, and cybercrime a type of cyber violence, then data interference or computer-related forgery, logically, are a form of violence. Basically, such conceptualisation and terminology completely disregard the nonsynonymous meaning of the words crime and violence. How such conceptual, terminological and logical incoherence might advance our understanding of (cyber) violence remains unclear. (Note: The troubles with cyber violence become even clearer when looking at proposed definitions: “Cyberviolence is the use of computer systems to cause, facilitate, or threaten violence against individuals that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering and may include the exploitation of the individual’s circumstances, characteristics or vulnerabilities. […] Common to all of these definitions is that “violence” is not limited to physical harm.”. Cit. Cybercrime Convention Committee 2018, p. 5.)

There are no correct or wrong concepts and definitions – their quality arises out of their ability to capture a phenomenon either well, or poorly. In that sense the above example might be considered a rather poor attempt to capture the phenomena of cyber violence and cyber harassment in relation to their overarching embeddedness in a coherent concept or terminology of violence or crime. To violence research, just as to our project, cyber harassment has become an add-on topic, although it would deserve to be studied in its own realm, together with closely related phenomena and within a sensible framework. Looking at both phenomena, there are significant differences in perpetrator and victim profiles, criminogenic, victimogenic and contextual factors, their modus operandi, the legal framework that deals with them, or the criminal justice responses applied to them. 

The most significant difference arises out of their unique intentionality on the side of the perpetrator and the decisiveness of perception on the side of the victim. Although exotic exceptions might come into mind, in general, (physical) violence is rather straight forward when it comes to its perpetrator’s intendedness and its victim’s perception as physical harm or death. Cyber harassment, however, commonly struggles with clear harassment-intent on the side of the perpetrator, and with a corresponding interpretation as harassment on the side of the victim – due to the cyber-nature of their interaction. This is an essential qualitative difference for which’s rebutting empirical evidence would be needed.

On Harmful Behaviour and “Bureaucratic Cybullying” as a Unique Type of Cyber Harassment

After having argued that cyber harassment does neither conceptually nor terminologically fit into (physical) violence research, the question remains where and how it should be allocated? I propose to position it within the realm of harmful behaviour (see following graphic), since it clearly is a type of behaviour that results in harm, and as such is the subject of criminology, as well as numerous other disciplines such as psychology, sociology, social work, psychiatry, law, communicology, and educational studies, to mention but a few.

(Cyber) harassment, (cyber) bullying and bureaucratic (cy)bullying as a type of harmful behaviour

The proposed concept allows for endless stretching of the generic term of harmful behaviour and its continuous adjustment to the changing world around us, in line with our constantly evolving perception of its harmfulness. Harmful behaviour indeed must include not only physical harm, but also psychological, social, economic, ecologic etc. The notion of cyber within such conceptual approach to the phenomenon of harassment simply indicates that it is being realised by means of email, text (or online) messages or the internet. Clearly, the cyber dimension in relation to harassment, as well as bullying, should not be understood merely in terms of modus operandi or locus operandi. The cyber dimension significantly changes the nature and scope of any harmful behaviour, mainly due to ease of access and the disinhibition effect of cyberspace. (Note: See, e.g. Suler 2004 or 2016. Suler explores the causes of the “online disinhibition effect” and analyses several factors that might help explain “why people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world”: dissociative anonymity; invisibility; asynchronicity; solipsistic introjection; dissociative imagination; minimizing authority; personality variables; personal and cultural values. Cit. Suler available online).

Now, I shall briefly define and describe the phenomenon of “bureaucratic cybullying” used as a shortened term for cyberbullying by faceless bureaucracy, on the example of the domain of public research funding. Based on our project’s experience and similar experiences and reactions confirmed by colleagues who (had) managed their own CSF projects we were able to work out several main characteristics of bureaucratic cybullying. The most common ‘complaints’ with regards to project related CSF relationship may be summarised by the following six characteristics: (1) excessive bureaucracy, (2) cyber correspondence, (3) facelessness, (4) transparent arbitrariness, (5) absolute authority, and (6) nonsense. These characteristics essentially describe what I termed “bureaucratic cybullying” and what we consequently explored in the domain of Croatian public research funding:

  • excessive bureaucracy, characterised by being coerced into fulfilling trivial or unpleasant administrative tasks, being given tasks below one’s competence, persistent ungrounded criticism of work and effort, and attempts to find fault, which results in waste of time for research, feelings of being exposed to work-unrelated bureaucratic nonsense and a presumed culpability for an unspecified (potential) misconduct;              
  • cyber correspondence, meaning that the only way of ‘communication’ is in writing and via e-mail, characterised by what Suler highlights as “asynchronicity” and “invisibility”. This results in feelings of being turned into the object or mere addressee of communication, rather than being an active part of it, as well as it amplifies misinterpretations due to lack of verbal expression (phone) and body language (face-to-face);  
  • facelessness, meaning that the e-mail correspondence is not attributable to any individual ‘real’ person, it is signed as “Croatian Science Foundation”, which is characterised by what Suler denotes “dissociative anonymity”, and imposes the fiction of (corresponding with) an CSF that exists as such in the real world (like a person), while creating the perception, as well as self-presentation of CSF’s bureaucracy as faceless;                 
  • transparent arbitrariness, which arises out of apparent transparency of procedures combined with unreasoned decision making on all levels, that is thus obvious/transparent in its arbitrariness and leads to feelings of demotivation, frustration, helplessness or revolt towards one’s own scientific work;    
  • absolute authority (germ. Machtvollkommenheit), which reflects an extreme or excessive imbalance in power, illegitimately or unnecessarily imposed hierarchy or coerced subordination, resulting in feelings of helplessness, abandonment and ‘malignant vulnerability’;
  • nonsense (germ. Blödsinn; cro. budalaštine), characterised by inquiries, responses, requests, instructions or decisions that lack any logic, meaningful purpose, are impossible to comply with, or do not correspond to the issue at stake, resulting in feelings of offendedness, helplessness, frustration, revolt and inexplicableness.

Clearly, there are varying severity degrees of the just presented bureaucratic cybulling characteristics, just as there are different combinations of various two up to all six characteristics. And just as with bullying in general, it is always a case-by-case assessment of whether a specific harmful behaviour is to be classified as bureaucratic cybulling or not. Two decisive criteria are the repeating or chronic nature of such incidents, as well as the absoluteness of authority on the side of faceless bureaucracy. The more extreme the absoluteness of authority, the lower the severity of single incidents must be in order to be considered bureaucratic cybullying, just like the rise in frequency and presence of all six characteristics with a high severity allows for lower levels of absolute authority. The exact base-line distinguishing such bullying from being exposed to (unwanted) unpleasant behaviour is generally unknown, but in the context of work-related bullying the bar must be set much higher, as here there is basically little if any voluntariness on the side of exposing oneself to bullying in work-related and contractually binding relationships. This brings us to the issue of vulnerability and the question of whether CSF (co)funded project managers (in Croatia), or more broadly (Croatian) academics, might be considered a (particularly) vulnerable group of victims.

The issue of academic vulnerability is closely related to the different policy approaches in public funding of science, research and higher education. In that respect, the level of academic capitalism, as well academia’s particular vulnerability “to political and other pressures which undermine academic freedom” (Note: Cit. Vrielinka, Lemmens & Parmentier 2011, p. 121), are two decisive factors that need to be considered when assessing whether a certain academic community in a particular state or domain should be considered (particularly) vulnerable. The notion of ‘particularly’ indicates a higher level of vulnerability than should be expected considering the normative and actual conditions for realisation of fundamental human rights and academic freedom in a specific country and its regional context. Since all the Balkan states, as well as Croatia, are bound to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, one could argue that there should be no (particular) academic vulnerability. Yet, looking at the national normative and administrative framework in Croatia, clearly in Croatia academia is not only vulnerable, but actually ‘particularly’ vulnerable, esp. in its European (rather than its Balkan) context. That makes it plausible to study bureaucratic cybullying in the domain of public research funding among project managers of CSF (co)funded research projects, not only in the framework of cyber harassment, but also with regards to our project’s focus on particularly vulnerable groups of victims.

Academic vulnerability in Croatia has emerged as a pressing concern, as CSF’s research grants are the only source of domestic public research funding and since project managers of CSF (co)funded research projects are financially vulnerable and fully personally accountable to outside (non-host institution) stakeholders. Jackson explains that the problem is not vulnerability as such, but rather “how it is experienced differently across individuals – and differently across systems, universities and disciplines – as tensions between academic values and market values manifest in diverse ways across contexts” (Note: Cit. Jackson 2018, p. 2). Jackson’s argument is that the common assumption that to be vulnerable is to be susceptible to risks and challenges, that as such vulnerability equals weakness, is a negative and deficient view of vulnerability that is found in literature on academics in higher education. Referring to Gilson she points out that “there is something positive about vulnerability from the view of individual and social learning: vulnerability enables learning. It entails an openness to being proven wrong or having one’s views challenged. If one’s beliefs or perspectives are ‘invulnerable’, he or she cannot learn or grow. This has important implications for education and for reforming systems and enhancing environments. Learners and stakeholders who seek positive change at individual or community levels should possess and even develop vulnerability, to be open to new and creative pathways for improvement” (Note: Cit. Jackson 2018, p. 2 and 3). In this sense, academics are (or at least should be) vulnerable by default. Now, whereas this positive notion of academic vulnerability might “work in harmony with neoliberal orientations which cast vulnerability as a personal issue”, vulnerability “in terms of systemic (institutional) failures”, just as vulnerability to violence, harmful behaviour (such as bureaucratic cybullying) and forms of oppression, is to be considered negative and to be avoided, prevented and decreased (Cits. Jackson 2018, p. 3).

To conclude with, “vulnerability is a normal part of being a person” and “there are cases where vulnerability can be seen not as a liability, but as something with potentially positive benefits despite its ‘troublesome’ dimensions” (Note: Cits. Jackson 2018, p. 7). In this sense beneficial vulnerability is at the very essence of academia’s true nature. So, when it comes to (beneficial, as well as harmful) academic vulnerability, the question is not if there is vulnerability, but rather how it is distributed among all relevant stakeholders in public research funding and whether an extremely unfair distribution makes a vulnerable academic community particularly vulnerable. Within this question also lies the answer on how to best avoid, prevent and decrease (malignant) academic (particular) vulnerability – by vulnerability’s fair distribution among all stakeholders. Eventually, such fair redistribution of vulnerability might simultaneously provide non-vulnerable stakeholders, such as CSF, access to (benignant) vulnerability. This as we have seen, is a basic precondition for social learning and as such a valuable resource for any stakeholder engaged in public research or its funding.


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