The definition of harassment


What constitutes harassment? That is the million dollar question that we as society have yet to answer. Yet it is an issue that plagues us everyday. With the advent of cyberbullying and the recent presidential election, the issue of harassment has become more pervasive in everyday life. However, how have we dealt with harassment? Sometimes, it seems impossible to deal with harassment. Other times, this word can be overused in cases where it may not be appropriate in some eyes. Although society can universally agree that certain speech is considered “hate speech”, “slander”, etc., what else is considered harassment? As members of society, we may be different from each other, but in today’s connected world, there needs to be a uniform, unequivocal definition of harassment that can be applied to every single person equally and fairly.

Yet there isn’t. And that’s an issue.

I’ve been bullied ever since I was 5 years old. I’m particularly sensitive, so some actions that may not seem uncomfortable to others in fact disturbs me deeply. Therefore, harassment has always been an important issue to me. (And of course, my motivating reason further demonstrates the disparity between individual perceptions of ethical behavior.) I have tried to combat harassment whenever I can, so imagine my surprise when I am denied the ability to collaborate with my peers to create a tool to combat harassment. That’s like being the world’s biggest pizza lover and not being allowed to join the International Pizza Club. (Probably doesn’t exist, but if it does, don’t @ me please.)

I applaud efforts to combat harassment, but I always ask how it is done. If you think about it, when’s the last time you could definitively guarantee that a certain controversial remark was considered harassment by Facebook and Twitter, the two most important social media networks in the United States? You cannot. That’s why the “report” button can feel like a black hole of complaints that are never resolved. We don’t have a clue whether something is considered harassment in Facebook or Twitter’s book.

When Facebook’s content moderation guidelines were recently leaked, they were absolutely appalling to me. The inconsistencies that I saw disgusted me. Something that is even more revolting? These guidelines had to be leaked, meaning they were kept private. Why would that be the case? This is not something Facebook should be hiding. How are we supposed to know exactly what Facebook considers okay and not okay? This is even worse than going through airport security, because at least the TSA has an online tool that tells you if something is allowed in carry-on, checked baggage, or not at all. Not to mention that harassment is something the world should deal with in a transparent, honest manner.

Just like HTML, ECMAScript, ISO standards, etc. are public knowledge, so should be the definition of harassment. There should be a standardized definition that anybody can contribute ideas and can help draft. This definition should be open-source, perhaps even public domain, and should be adopted by any organization that patrols content, including Facebook and Twitter. I urge entities that try to combat harassment to actually tell us what they consider harassment. There is literally no point in keeping this a secret. This is an issue we should tackle together, and there is much to be gained by collaboration on uniform specifications of what constitutes harassment. Otherwise, it’s like ordering pizza and not knowing what will be on it. Sure, the pizza dough might be made with some special recipe, but knowing whether there will be pepperoni or buffalo chicken or vegetables on the pizza is significant and should be public knowledge. In the same way, there must be transparency and consistency when dealing with the enforcement of important social norms such as anti-harassment.

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