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What makes cyberbullying so dangerous, and when does it become a criminal offense?

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Sharing embarrassing pictures of colleagues in a chat, filming playground fights or leaving insulting comments on social media: children and young people are especially exposed to cyberbullying, but adults can also be bullied online. What often starts as gentle teasing can end up having severe consequences for victims, and it can even be a criminal offense. 

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    Zurich-based start-up Silenccio has been working with AXA since 2019. We spoke to Katrin Sprenger and Karoline Fuss from Zurich-based start-up Silenccio about the key issues relating to cyberbullying.

What exactly is meant by the term “cyberbullying”?

Katrin Sprenger: We use this term when a person is subjected to protracted and deliberate insults, humiliation or harassment via a digital channel. Cyberbullying can take many forms, from spreading rumors and creating fake profiles designed to insult someone to harassing or threatening them using text messages or even distributing embarrassing or intimate pictures.

These are the best-known forms, but there are others some people may not be familiar with, such as producing countless negative posts or comments that will then be thrown up by search engines when anyone searches for the victim’s name. Whatever form the bullying takes, the intention is always the same, namely to hurt another person.

What causes cyberbullying?

Katrin Sprenger: I think the root causes of cyberbullying are the same as for any other form of bullying. We can generally say that all bullying is about a show of strength or boosting the bully’s low self-esteem. The underlying causes are many and varied: jealousy, a need for revenge, and just the desire to see someone suffer often play a part. The growing spread of cyberbullying also stems from the fact that virtually everyone has a smartphone these days and can thus start bullying others at any time anonymously, regardless of where they and their victim may be. 

What makes cyberbullying so dangerous?

Karoline Fuss: Cyberbullying’s very different to bullying in the real world, where isolated cases tend to be forgotten over time, and defamatory comments are “only” passed on by word of mouth. Once a post, a comment or a picture is online, it can make its way around the world in no time at all. It’s almost impossible to trace every pathway, which makes it hard to remove the offending item completely. For instance, a picture sent using a messaging app like WhatsApp might still be stored in the cloud years later.

Then there’s the anonymity people enjoy on the Internet. Real-world bullies have to face their victims in person, but cyberbullies don’t have to have that sort of direct contact, and this makes them less inhibited. Even now, perpetrators rarely fear being held to account for their actions. They believe – wrongly – that the Internet is outside the law.

How does cyberbullying affect victims?

Karoline Fuss: Just like real-world bullying, cyberbullying can have a serious psychological impact. In addition to social exclusion, victims can experience mental and physical problems, including sleep disorders and nightmares. On top of this, bullying damages their confidence and self-esteem, which can causing lasting damage in the worst cases in the form of depression, anxiety or worse.

How widespread is cyberbullying in Switzerland?

Karoline Fuss: It’s hard to put into figures because the difference between poking fun at someone and insulting them is highly subjective. This makes it difficult to measure the actual number of victims. What we can say for sure is that cyberbullying is the right word to use as soon as any individual starts to feel threatened or insulted.

The JAMES Study by the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences concludes that around 20% of young people in Switzerland have been bullied via a digital channel.

One in eight has had false or insulting information about them posted online. In the 2018 JAMES Study, a third of young people said that photos or videos of them had been posted without their permission.

In a German study, 13% of school students admitted to having taken part in cyberbullying. Most of them cited a personal argument with the victim as their reason. It’s striking to note that a fifth of the bullies said they had also been victims of cyberbullying (Cyberlife II Study 2017).

The terrible thing about cyberbullying is that, unlike offline bullying, it follows victims home. There’s no “break” or “safe place”, the Internet’s everywhere.

Karoline Fuss, Operations Manager, Silenccio

Can you give us some examples of how cyberbullies operate?

Karoline Fuss: The classic case, of course, is school bullying. Certain students single out someone who isn’t perceived as normal and start to post stupid nonsense on the victim’s social media profile. Others see it and add their own comments, and before you know it, the stupid nonsense turns into something much more hurtful. Then people start surreptitiously taking photos or videos of the victim on their phones, and the bullying’s in full swing.

Bullying can also take much more subtle forms, however. Among adults in particular, lies and rumors can be spread via social networks until those close to the victim start to believe them. In many cases involving young people and adults alike, the herd mentality and the perpetrators’ desire to belong to a certain group play an important role.

What laws does Switzerland have against cyberbullying?

Karoline Fuss:  There’s no special clause in Swiss law defining cyberbullying as a crime, but there are ways in which victims can call their tormentors to account. Depending on the nature and severity of the bullying, a conventional offense may have been committed that can be prosecuted accordingly. Insult, defamation, and threatening behavior – all classic signs of cyberbullying – are defined as offenses by the Swiss Criminal Code and can be punished by fines of up to 180 daily penalty units.

If, for example, a bully hacks an account and uses it without the owner’s consent, this qualifies as unauthorized access to a data processing system, which can in fact attract a prison sentence of up to five years. To sum up, then: even in the absence of a special clause on cyberbullying, victims have plenty of scope to invoke the law in their own defense.

If you’re affected by cyberbullying, it’s important to take a screenshot right away for evidence. Take care to capture the whole screen so that you can prove where the comment or picture was posted later on.

Katrin Sprenger, CEO of Silenccio

What can I do if I’m a victim of cyberbullying?

KUF: As bad as things may seem at the moment, it’s important to stay calm. Whatever you do, don’t respond to the negative comments. It’s much better to take a screenshot of all offending chats, messages, and pictures right away for evidence. Once you’ve saved these, you should block the bully on whatever platform he or she is using so as not to receive any more comments. Then you should delete as much of the offending content as you can. Ideally, you should discuss the situation with the person concerned. If an amicable solution can’t be found, you can report him or her to the police.

Silenccio protects against hateful online comments. How does the prevention service work?

KAS: We operate a two-pronged approach. Firstly, customers can link their social media profiles to our platform. Secondly, they can specify keywords that might be used in connection with their name. We regularly search the linked social media as well as the public Internet for text featuring the customer’s name, any keywords he or she has specified, and words with negative connotations.

If we find any, the customer receives an alert and can view what we found. If the customer finds the text offensive, we contact the author or the social media site directly on his or her behalf and ask for it to be removed. If this isn’t done after repeated requests, the customer can take legal action with help from AXA-ARAG. 

Laws against cyberbullying 

Swiss law doesn’t have a special clause defining cyberbullying as a crime subject to prosecution in its own right. However, cyberbullying does qualify as a criminal offense under the following clauses of the Swiss Criminal Code (SCC), meaning that cyberbullies can be prosecuted:

  • Art. 143 and Art. 143bis SCC: unauthorized obtaining of data / unauthorized access to a data processing system
  • Art. 144bis point 1 SCC: damage to data
  • Art. 156 SCC: extortion
  • Art. 173 SCC: defamation
  • Art. 174 SCC: willful defamation
  • Art. 177 SCC: insult
  • Art. 179bis and Art. 179ter SCC: breach of privacy or secrecy by using a recording device
  • Art. 179novies SCC: obtaining personal data without authorization
  • Art. 180 SCC: threatening behavior
  • Art. 181 SCC: coercion 

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