Civil actions: How four simple rules can make the internet safer

Erin Roberts began using social media the way most teens do — documenting life through a camera lens, taking silly selfies and responding to urgent texts asking her to like friends’ posts.

Then her Instagram account was hacked, and someone used it to post a rude comment on another friend’s photo. The gossip mill eventually sorted out what had happened, and everyone apologized for their roles in this online drama.

That experience more than a year ago led Roberts, now a 15-year-old high school student in Michigan, to apply to become a member of Microsoft’s Council for Digital Good. The council selected teens from around the country to talk honestly about their online lives, what their peers are experiencing and how companies and policymakers can foster better online experiences.

The members have become ambassadors in their own communities for Microsoft’s campaign for Digital Civility, which represents an important evolution in the company’s online safety work. They have also served as members of focus groups for partner organizations working to combat cyberbullying and “sexploitation” and will travel to Washington, D.C., this summer to share ideas with policymakers.

Image of round purple sticker that reads I'm for digital civilityThis civility campaign is the brainchild of Jacqueline Beauchere, who became Microsoft’s first Chief Online Safety Officer five years ago this spring. Her passion and evangelism for online safety were shaped during the previous decade. She spent that time leading the company’s consumer education efforts about online risks like cyberbullying and phishing and promoting legislative priorities to protect children online. Her initial work included fairly traditional approaches to online safety: teaching kids about stranger-danger, educating people about email scams, championing parental controls in products, rooting out illegal content.

The Digital Civility campaign aims to expand the notion of what it means to create a safe online experience. It includes a simple call to action for people — of any age — to live by four tenets online: Treat others as you want to be treated, respect differences of thought and perspective, pause before replying and stand up for yourselves and others.

“In high school, it’s a huge deal to keep up your reputation online and only show the things you want others to see. That can make people feel insecure about the person they actually are, and then they try to make themselves feel better by being snarky or tearing other people down online,” says Roberts.

“For me, digital civility is about building someone up instead of tearing them down.”

When Beauchere, who works at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., moved into the Chief Online Safety Officer role, she became responsible for all aspects of Microsoft’s online safety strategy — including influencing safety features and functionality in consumer products and creating internal policies. She also expanded collaborations with nonprofits, governments and other companies to help combat online risks like harassment, exposure to hate speech and the posting of sexually explicit photos and videos without consent.

The online world lacks the norms that exist when people are interacting with each other face to face. Over a computer and in the heat of charged debate, people sometimes don’t appreciate that there’s a soul at the other end.

Beauchere saw a fundamental need for better data and more conversation about how people behave online; what risks and rewards they experience; and how to make the internet a safer place. She also sought to marry the two strains of her online safety work: educating the public about online risks and moderating the darker side of online behavior.

“I wanted to mesh these two worlds together to come out with something more positive, yet representative of the kinds of risks that people may face online today,” Beauchere says. So last year she launched a new campaign around the Digital Civility Index, a new measure of online safety that surveys teens and adults about online behavior and rates the level of digital civility in 23 countries. It asks internet users about exposure to 20 online risks, including trolling, cyberbullying, misogyny and unwanted contact.

The campaign also includes a Digital Civility Challenge, with recommendations for technology companies, policymakers, educators and internet users to help grow a culture of respect and inclusion.

“The online world lacks the norms that exist when people are interacting with each other face to face. Over a computer and in the heat of charged debate, people sometimes don’t appreciate that there’s a soul at the other end; some things that get said online would never be said in person. Such norms should exist online,” says Beauchere.  “This is something to galvanize others around — if people were really living these four principles, we would begin to limit the amount of online bullying, harassment and hateful and hurtful language.”

Microsoft focuses on online safety every day — on initiatives that make it easier for online gamers to report abusive behaviors; protecting data privacy; removing hate speech; and growing industrywide databases to identify and remove illegal content from consumer services.

Efforts like the Council for Digital Good and the Digital Civility campaign have helped Microsoft and its online safety partners worldwide take a closer look at what negative behaviors people are personally experiencing online, how those risks vary globally and how to develop more nuanced solutions.

Photo of 15 teenagers standing in a semicircle in front of a neon sign saying live, work play
Microsoft’s Council for Digital Good members convened in Redmond last summer to share ideas about fostering digital civility.

Janice Richardson, an online safety expert who founded international Safer Internet Day in 2004 and coordinated the European Safer Internet Awareness Network (INSAFE), says that work has only grown more complicated in the intervening years. In just one example, the ubiquity of mobile phones and parents’ tendencies to use them as babysitters mean children begin interacting with the internet at much younger ages.

“What I find so good about Microsoft’s research is that it confirms many of the things that we as leaders in this field think and believe, but it also shows you what you might be missing,” Richardson says. “It’s a checklist and from time to time it shows you ‘Oh, this is really different in this country and here’s how we should be approaching that.’”

Image of red square sticker that says digital civility I respect differencesDigital civility is designed to be an organizing principle and platform for others.  “We’re seeing people appreciate the foundational notion of digital civility and they’re starting their own programs and initiatives. One year in, that’s exactly what we want,” Beauchere says.

Desmond Patton, an assistant professor of social work and of sociology at Columbia University, studies how young people navigate violence and gang involvement on social media. He is considering how to use Microsoft’s research and recommendations in a new curriculum for his Digital Scholars Lab, which brings youth from marginalized communities in New York City to Columbia for six weeks to learn about tech skills, digital civility, social science research and artificial intelligence.

“I think there is an important and needed conversation to have about what does digital civility look like within your own community,” Patton says, “which may look different if you live on the south side of Chicago.”

Nicholas Carlisle, founder and CEO of the organization No Bully, worked with Beauchere and Council for Digital Good members to shape a new campaign, “The Power of Zero,” launching this fall. The teens helped adults realize the need to lay a foundation to combat cyberbullying at earlier ages. No Bully decided to focus its campaign on helping children younger than 8 develop digital citizenship skills and empathy online.

“There is this great kismet between looking at a problem behavior and flipping it around and saying, ‘Let’s look at what we want to create’ — which is digital civility,” he says. “Jacqueline has done a lot to push that argument forward.”

For me, digital civility is about building someone up instead of tearing them down.

Christina Woodrow, 17, applied to Microsoft’s Council for Digital Good in part to encourage people to become more critical online thinkers.

Woodrow was once an avid online video gamer, who spent hours playing against and chatting with gamers she knew only virtually. When she was in the fifth grade, her school’s curriculum included a unit about online safety. It dawned on her that one of the other players had been asking her a lot of personal questions, including what state she lived in. After that, she stopped frequenting the chatrooms and became a more cautious internet user.

Photo of art project with a black and white mask superimposed on top of phrases like be smart and campaign to end all forms of bullying
Council for Digital Good member Erin Roberts, 15,  created this art project for her personal manifesto for life online. It focused on being one’s true self online instead of hiding behind a mask.

As part of the council’s work, each of its 15 members was asked to choose one aspect of online safety and incorporate it into the cohort’s written and creative manifestos for life online, to be shared on Twitter. Woodrow focused on using reporting functions to flag harassing, bullying, or inappropriate behavior online. Woodrow believes technology companies need to make it easy for people to report bad behavior, and, more importantly, follow up with results so people don’t feel like they’re sending feedback into a void. And other users need to step up when they see bad behavior.

“There are always going to be community guidelines, and there are always going to be people who disregard them. Everyone should take advantage of reporting functions and not just be a passive bystander and wait for someone else to take action,” Woodrow says.

Reporting was an important topic when the council met for a two-day summit on the Microsoft campus last summer, says Beauchere. She learned from listening to the teens that industry language about reporting online abuse simply didn’t resonate with them.

“They didn’t see teasing and bullying and harassment as rising to a level of abuse. The kids said, ‘Oh, that’s just drama,’” says Beauchere.

As a result, she worked to re-frame that language, and Microsoft is now encouraging users to report a “concern” about online behavior or content that violates the company’s terms of service. It’s the kind of subtle difference that even those who have been steeped in online safety work for years might miss.

“These are the kinds of perspectives and insights we’re gleaning from these young people so we can make adjustments in our own products and services,” says Beauchere. “It was an ‘aha’ moment for sure.”

The council will soon begin work on its next project, which will be unveiled at a public event on the future of digital civility in Washington, D.C., this summer. In the meantime, council members will continue to grow their community of champions, supporters and ambassadors for that cause.

“We want the underlying values that support our online safety work — respect for human life, the rule of law and individual expression — to be recognized and embraced by more and more people around the world,” Beauchere says, “to reduce risks so that all people can truly recognize the transformational power of technology.”

Lead photo: Chief Online Safety Officer Jacqueline Beauchere is the driving force behind Microsoft’s campaign for digital civility. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

You can follow the Council for Digital Good on this Facebook page and via Twitter using #CouncilforDigitalGood. To learn more about online safety generally, visit this website and resources page; “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.