Overcoming online pitfalls: Improving safety and building trust through digital civility

Apr 5, 2017 7:20am


GW Law event
From left, George Washington University Law School professor Arturo Carillo; Microsoft Chief of Online Safety Jacqueline Beauchere; law school students Sarabeth Rangiah, Noor Hamadeh and Fatimah Hameed; and Laurie Kohn, associate professor of clinical law at the law school and co-director of the Cyber-Violence Project.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the George Washington University Law School where our new research and work on digital civility took center stage as a means of helping to combat online pitfalls like cyber-violence, hoaxes and misinformation.

A More Perfect Internet: Digital Incivility, Cyber-Violence and Fake News” was the second program in a series, led by professors Arturo Carillo and Dawn Nunziato, as part of the law school’s Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights Project. The event brought together practitioners, academics and student-experts to identify, address and explore ways to combat these issues.

During the first of two panels, I shared findings from our Digital Civility Index on the perceived level of online civility in 14 countries, as reported by teens and adults. Microsoft released this research in conjunction with international Safer Internet Day 2017 on Feb. 7, and the findings are currently in use by GWU Law’s Cyber-Violence Project — a program that raises awareness of online abuse and offers legal and non-legal resources to affected persons in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Sharing Microsoft research to help educate victims

Focused on intimate-partner and gender violence, the GW Law Cyber-Violence Project’s education curriculum encourages victims of non-consensual pornography, cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking to “pull the plug on cyber-violence.” It stresses to victims that they are not alone, that “non-extreme” cases should not be downplayed, and that all digital citizens need to be mindful of online civility: leading and acting with empathy and treating others with respect and dignity. When educating victims, GW students reference Microsoft’s Digital Civility Index, noting in particular that 62 percent of respondents said that if they needed assistance with an online risk, they did not know or were unsure where to turn.

“Being mean to someone on the internet is just what goes on among millennials – but that’s not true,” said Sarabeth Rangiah, a student-leader on the project, citing a disappointing misconception. On the contrary, being mindful of civility can help prevent cyber-violence.

Respondents to our research said that while they find the internet overall to be a “civil” place, they did express strong concerns over safety both now and in the future. Two-thirds said they’d been exposed to at least one of 17 different online risks, and 50 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about risks in general. Various forms of harassment, unwanted contact and concerns over damage to reputation stood out as future online safety concerns.

Join our Digital Civility Challenge

These and other data combined to result in a reading of 65 percent on the first-ever Microsoft Digital Civility Index, a calculation of perceived online civility among respondents in all 14 countries. The index works like a golf score: the lower the percentage — on a scale of 0 to 100 — the lower the level of exposure to online risks among respondents in that country and thus, the higher the level of perceived civility.

In addition to the research and index, last month we also announced our digital civility challenge, which encourages people around the world to live by four basic tenets:

  • Live the Golden Rule: I will act with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treat everyone I connect with online with dignity and respect.
  • Respect differences: I will appreciate cultural differences and honor diverse perspectives. When I disagree, I will engage thoughtfully and avoid name calling and personal attacks.
  • Pause before replying: I will pause and think before responding to things I disagree with. I will not post or send anything that could hurt someone else, damage my reputation or threaten my safety or the safety of others.
  • Stand up for myself and others: I will tell someone if I feel unsafe, offer support to those who are targets of online abuse or cruelty, report activity that threatens anyone's safety and preserve evidence of inappropriate or unsafe behavior.

There is still time to visit our Digital Civility webpage and share that you’re signing up to the challenge on social media. Use the hashtags #challenge4civility and #Im4digitalcivility to let us know how you’re doing and to inspire others to join.

For more on digital civility, go to www.microsoft.com/digitalcivility. To learn about online safety generally, visit our website and resources page, which includes this short guide about starting a conversation about online safety with kids. And, for more regular news and information, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author
Jacqueline Beauchere is the chief online safety officer at Microsoft and a former chair of the National Cyber Security Alliance's Board of Directors. 

This post originally appeared March 31, 2017, in the Microsoft On the Issues blog.