This anti-bullying PSA acts out online comments in real life. It's an uncomfortable watch.

Bullying is just as wrong when it happens online as it is in person. So why does one seem to be so much more acceptable than the other?

A new anti-bullying campaign and PSA called "In Real Life," spearheaded by Monica Lewinsky, takes actual insults people have said online and brings them into the physical world. While actors portray the bullies and their victims in the video, the reactions of unsuspecting onlookers are genuine.

A collection of actual insults people posted online that were acted out in person as part of the In Real Life PSA. Screenshot from In Real Life/YouTube.


The PSA opens with a pleasant scene that quickly turns jarring. Two men are sitting together in a coffee shop, when a stranger walks up to their table. "Gay people are sick, and you should just kill yourselves!" he tells them.

This kind of interaction is not something you see that often in the real world (though it does happen). On the internet, however, that type of comment from a stranger isn't just normal, it's actually kind of tame.

Later in the video, a woman gets screamed at for being a "fat bitch" and a Muslim woman gets called a "terrorist." In all of the scenarios, bystanders — who were not involved in the social experiment — look on with horror.

Screenshot from In Real Life/YouTube.

A number of studies show why people who wouldn't bully someone to their face feel emboldened to do it online.

Anonymity, the ability to say or do whatever you want with little or no consequence for your actions, plays a role, but it's far from the only reason people engage in cyberbullying. The performative nature of online harassment also encourages others to pile on the target, whether they have a stake in the conversation or not. Mob mentality dictates that the more people go in on the target, the less any single person might feel responsible for negative outcomes. More than anything else, though, the barrier of the internet between bully and victim creates an empathy gap.

On the internet, regular people — your neighbors, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, and even family members — are all susceptible to becoming bullies, making it that much more important to think critically about the effects of our actions and behaviors online.

Screenshot from In Real Life/YouTube.

Online harassment is so much more than being "just the way the internet is."

"One thing people don’t necessarily realize about being threatened or dog-piled online is how much it can undermine your real-world sense of safety," author Sady Doyle explains in a Twitter direct message. Doyle has experienced escalating bullying and harassment online for years, especially during the 2016 election season, in response to her writing on Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Threats of physical violence and stalking across online platforms became normal to Doyle. Once an influential Twitter user took aim at her, to win that account's approval, their followers would engage in a game of one-upmanship harassment. Doyle began to worry more and more about how it would end. Scheduled book readings brought on a new sort of anxiety, as she feared that any of her online tormentors would be able to easily confront her in person. Thankfully, it never happened.

"I think that lost sense of safety is really what the impact is," she writes. "There’s mental health stuff, obviously — anyone with a tendency to depression, which I have, will internalize certain mean comments and play them back in a low moment — but it’s mostly the realization that there are people out there that want to hurt you, or your loved ones, and that you can’t necessarily recognize those people on sight, that is so damaging."

People shouldn't have to live in fear, and that's why campaigns like "In Real Life" are so important.

"It’s a stark and shocking mirror to people to rethink how we behave online versus the ways that we would behave in person," Lewinsky told People magazine about the project.

Saying that while "there are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions" of insults that have been written about her online and in print, personal confrontations were much, much less common. "When you are with someone, when you see someone face to face, you are reminded of their humanity."

Lewinsky's powerful 2015 TED Talk on "The Price of Shame" helped establish her as a major voice in anti-bullying activism. Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/AFP/Getty Images.

Unlike Doyle, you probably don't have to worry about online harassers showing up at scheduled appearances, and unlike Lewinsky, you probably aren't an internationally known political lightning rod of the late '90s. Even so, the lessons contained in this video — not to say things online that you wouldn't say to someone's face, to remember that real people are on the receiving end of every online comment, and more — are applicable to all of us. Online bullying isn't the exact same thing as the physical playground-style bullying we've heard about all of our lives, but its effects on the target's sense of well-being is every bit as real.

Whether you've been the bully, the bullied, or just a bystander, there are lessons we can learn from this powerful PSA, which you can watch below.

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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If you listened to traditional news media (and sometimes social media), you'd begin to think the Internet and technology are bad for kids. Or kids are bad for technology. Here's a fascinating alternative idea.

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This article originally appeared on 03.31.15

Kids can innovate, create, and imagine in ways that are fresh and inspiring — when we "allow" them to do so, anyway. Despite the tendency for parents to freak out because their kids are spending more and more time with technology in schools, and the tendency for schools themselves to set extremely restrictive limits on the usage of such technology, there's a solid argument for letting them be free to imagine and then make it happen.

It's not a stretch to say the kids in this video are on the cutting edge. Some of the results he talks about in the video at the bottom are quite impressive.

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