By now, most of us are sadly familiar with cyberbullying and online harassment, its most common manifestation. The deliberate dissemination of rude, threatening, or offensive content, online harassment is pervasive across all social media platforms. Yet the very nature of social media means it occurs in plain sight. Whenever a bully attacks someone online, bystanders like us are not only there to witness it but also have the power to report the harasser. Yet, a mere 30% of bystanders use the reporting tools embedded in social media platforms to flag content or report harassers. Can we do better?

In a recent article, Prof. Christy Cheung and a team of researchers investigated the data of 291 Facebook users to explore what drive bystanders to report online harassment. Combining what we know about how bystanders act in real life with new insights about the impact of technology and the distinctive way we behave online (let’s face it, our online persona is not always our “best-self”), they identified four factors that shape how bystanders intervene when witnessing online harassment. First, the emergency of the incident is important, i.e. what we see must feel urgent and serious. Whether we feel responsible to report what we have seen and the trust we place on the reporting process of the platform also matter. Finally, we are more prone to intervene when we feel our intervention will be impactful. The ability to remain anonymous is also crucial since we don’t want to be on the receiving end of the person we denounce, especially when many other bystanders could also take the lead in reporting an incident (this is also why few people react when witnessing an accident, as we tend to rely on others to do so).

Based on their findings, the researchers believe platform owners should use machine learning to flag harassment posts and show bystanders that a user flagged a post, thus nudging others to realise the importance of reporting. To enhance the sense of responsibility of bystanders, platform owners could run campaigns and training programs (on Internet etiquette, online behavior etc) to mitigate the consequences of harassment. Enhancing reporting systems, protecting the anonymity of reporting bystanders, setting clear reporting standards, keeping bystanders abreast of the status of their complaint and publicising success stories about reporting are also important measures to fight this plague.

So next time you see something bad online, don’t hesitate to push that reporting button. Only our collective efforts will make the online world a better place for all!


Wong, R., Cheung, C., Xiao, B., & Thatcher, J. (2021). Standing Up or Standing By: Understanding Bystanders’ Proactive Reporting Responses to Social Media Harassment. Information Systems Research, 32(2), 561-581. More(Open Access).