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Monica Lewinsky Says 'Cyberbullying Is 24-7' -- But Can Emojis Help Stop It? (Q&A)

One is a heart giving a hug, while the other shows two hands coming together in solidarity.

James Duncan Davidson/TED

Monica Lewinsky knows plenty about online harassment, which is why she has been speaking out on the issue for the past two years. Now, she thinks she knows how to fight back — with emojis.

Really. Working with British carrier Vodafone, Lewinsky has developed some designs of the popular ideograms that go beyond the typical smiley or frowny face to demonstrate support for someone who is being targeted online. One of the Be Strong images is a heart with a hug around it, while the other shows two hands linking in solidarity.

“I understand how alone you can feel in these kinds of situations,” Lewinsky said to Re/code. “As I know, from my own experiences, just having a modicum of support from a stranger makes a difference … Cyberbullying is 24-7. It’s relentless. Being able to offer an immediate, fast response is very helpful.”

The effort comes as part of Tuesday’s Safer Internet Day and follows on work Lewinsky has done with other groups, including Bystander Revolution. She has also spoken out publicly, including at a TED talk last year in which she called for an end to “public shaming as a blood sport.”

Lewinsky and Vodafone worked with Snaps Media on a keyboard for iOS and Android and also hope to see the emojis widely adopted by the leading social media platforms.

In an interview, Lewinsky talked about the effort, why the issue of online harassment is so personal and the role she thinks government should play. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:

Re/code: Talk about this latest project with the emoji. How did you come up with those? What was the process?

Monica Lewinsky: A friend and I were at dinner, talking about bullying and where my passions have been for the last two years. Ideas come up in conversation, as they do. We came upon this idea, thinking, “What about an emoji that would be used for anti-bullying purposes?”

Sometimes the initial reaction [is that] everybody thinks, “let’s push the bully back and protect the person.” But I realized it really doesn’t move the conversation forward to go after the bully. It became clear to me that what was really necessary was this idea of providing support for people who were suffering right now, in the moment, from being harassed online or even offline.

We worked with semioticians and designers and psychologists — my background is in psychology, and my master’s [degree] is in social psychology — but we worked also with a real expert, Dacher Keltner, who was involved in “Inside Out.”

That was sort of the beginning of the process. Then we surveyed 5,000 teens. Eighteen percent of them had been cyberbullied and 43 percent found they struggled in finding the right words to show support. We knew we were on the right track.

How personal is this for you?

I understand how alone you can feel in these kinds of situations. I read a statistic somewhere that roughly one in three people who are bullied or cyberbullied will tell someone that this is happening. That really indicates there is a lot of suffering in silence going on. That is the part that really can spiral, and [that] concerns me. There are people suffering right now: What can we do to try to help ease that suffering in the meantime, as we try to change the culture?

When you look overall at the state of the Internet and harassment, what are the things you have encouraged?

This campaign. These emojis. [The idea] that companies like Vodafone care. My dream for them is that the public-facing platforms will open up to allow keyboards to be used or, at the very least, our keyboards. The thing that is the most vital to trying to start to change things is compassion: Having compassion, showing compassion for other people.

 An illustration Matt Jones did on cyberbullying for Vodafone’s Be Strong initiative
An illustration Matt Jones did on cyberbullying for Vodafone’s Be Strong initiative

What has you most concerned?

There is a lot of vitriol and misogyny [that] comes to the surface on the Internet. We are still in a place where people are exploring the boundaries of anonymity and exploring the boundaries of what it means to be connected globally, instantaneously. I also think the Internet reflects our offline behavior. It is very much a part of the culture, but it also reflects an aspect of the culture, which I talked about in the TED talk as a culture of humiliation and people commodifying shame.

I know you try to avoid politics, but do you think there is a role for government to play in this?

To be honest, I think there are probably ways the government could get involved. I have heard arguments for both reasons — why they should and why they shouldn’t. I’m open-minded to this idea. There may be a way that government can play a role, but ultimately I think it comes down to people making a choice [about] how they want humanity to be expressed.

What does a safer Internet look like to you? How do you imagine it would look if everyone did their part?

The truth is, a safer Internet would be a reflection of a safer world. There’s a lot of research saying that people bullying or harassing others are suffering themselves. There’s that saying that “hurt people hurt people.”

Tim Berners-Lee is a part of [an organization called] The Web We Want, [which works with] this idea of creating an online Magna Carta — the people creating what is it that we want it to be, and what are the rules for that.

I wrote for Vanity Fair in 2014 that when the Model T Ford replaced the horse and buggy, for a while, cars were on the road and there were no rules. Eventually, society decided [that] what make some sense [was] to have some guidelines and parameters [to] keep everybody safer. That’s where we are at with the Internet.

What’s next for you?

I’m very busy as a social activist for anti-bullying and as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. For right now, these are the projects I am most focused on.

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