Hacking People

Hacking People

This is an edited version of a talk I presented a talk of at Trampoline 2 [0] in Melbourne [1], Saturday 24th of October, 2009 called “Hacking People, Hacking Bullies”. [2],[3],[4],[5],[6].

The talk was divided into three parts: a) “Know your Enemy, Hacking humans”; b) “In the field: real life examples”; and c) “Hacking Bullies”. In this, the first part of the talk I identifying bullies and their modes of attack. The second will possibly never be written up for public consumption but it illustrated how bullies operate using using personal anecdotes. The last part of the talk I have already written up. It explainshow you might go about Hacking Bullies [7] using network science concepts.


My name is Peter. I’m a programmer. One of those gen-X slackers you hear about. My second computer was an Apple 2e clone shipped from Singapore in parts and hand assembled. I’ll be as lo-tech as you can get and read from sheets of paper. My talk is on bullies and what happens when they discover computers. I’m not a psychologist, I’m a technologist with crap social skills. I’m interested in how bullies are adapting to computers and network, how to identify and neutralise them.

The idea I want to explore, “Is there a better way to identify and disrupt Cyberbullies?”. To do this we first must understand bullies and the mechanics of bullying.


The effects of bullying is enough of a problem for the United States Secret Service to carry out a threat assessment [8] to understand why so many school kids carried out “targeted violence” [9] in American schools? One of the findings: Bullying was identified as a major contributor in shootings in the United States secondary schools. [10] The number of reported bully attacks in lower level schools in Norway 1983 was 1 in 7. In the same country the number of reported attacks in lower schools in 2001, increased by 50%. And more worrying statistic, the number of students in the most serious forms, up 67%. [11]

Bullying has serious implications and it can be quantified. So what and who are these bullies?

Know your enemy

First some terminology. I want to use the word ATTACKER and TARGET to describe a “bully” and their “victim”. I choose these words carefully to redefine the problem. People who are attacked, shouldn’t be thought of as being helpless as the term “victim” implies. Neither, should bullies be described in favourable terms.

When I say ATTACKER, I want you to think “bully” and “looser”. When I say TARGET I want you to think, “could this be me?”.

What is bullying?

Bullying is any negative action that is intentional, systematic and repeated. The majority of bullying is by two to three ATTACKERs. [12] The TARGET is chosen for a number of reasons, but mostly because of some in-balance of social power. [13]


The key to recognition, is realising an ATTACKER is someone who has a strong need for power and negative dominance. Recognition relies on understanding the psychology of the ATTACKER, not just their appearance. This makes recognition difficult.

Fighting style

When it comes to attacking men, women, girls and boys each have their own particular style. The simplest explanation I can think of is “Men attack like paratroopers. Women, special agents”. Males are aggressive and physical. Why bother talking, when you push, shove, kick and punch your TARGET. As a rule, males tend to be regressive and overt. Males attack their TARGET directly just like Paratroopers. Violent, fast, no retreat, no prisoners.

“Men attack like paratroopers. Women, special agents”

Females are less physically able than males but can be just as aggressive and have a uniquely adapted fighting style. They excel at indirect attack. Indirect attacks are concealed and subtle, something males can’t quite comprehend. This is why females are special agents. They can get in under your guard and deliver attacks just devastating as the male, undetected. Do not underestimate the arsenal female ATTACKER have at their disposal.

Males might take things from you, be physical, be overtly verbal, make threats and force you to do things. Female use of social exclusion, spreading rumours, lies and sophisticated use of language is relatively undetectable in comparison to crude methods used by Males. [14]

Hacking Humans

Why do ATTACKERS try to hack humans? How do they find their TARGET? Why do they engage an audience?


How does an ATTACKER select a TARGET? It’s not difficult. An ATTACKER will select a TARGET by identifying and exploiting weakness in certain individuals. An ATTACKER will try to ascertain if a person is more vulnerable than others using a wide variety of criteria. Is the person socially excluded? Are they introverted? Are they different? Some common ways to access weakness include: Gait, [15] blind spots [16] and asymmetry. [17]

An anatomy of an attack

When an attack occurs the ATTACKER and TARGET engage in a sort of choreographed dance. ATTACKER, TARGET, HENCHMEN and OUTSIDERs playing a defined but changeable role.

  • SCAN The ATTACKER views the battlefield scanning for TARGETs. [18] Them things happen fast.
  • SIGNAL The ATTACKER has signaled the TARGET. At this point if the battleground is public, onlookers are now involved.
  • ATTACK The bully can now joined by HENCHMEN, followers of the bully who actively join in on the attack. The TARGET probably has no idea this is going to happen because of blind spots and will be stunned. Unable to respond. It’s at this stage OUTSIDERs, people who happen to be in the battleground become involved.
  • CHOOSING SIDES The ATTACKER needs OUTSIDERS to join in to re-inforce their social status. An OUTSIDER has multiple choices. They can support the ATTACKER and actively join in or remain passive. An OUTSIDER may choose not to get involved and watch. An OUTSIDER might choose to actively DEFEND or potentially DEFEND.
  • OUTCOME The ATTACKER has bullied the TARGET. Depending on the circumstances HENCHMEN may have also joined in.

Intervention as a solution?

What about the OUTSIDERS? Why didn’t they DEFEND? Why did some join the ATTACKERS side? The sad truth is most OUTSIDERs are of no help to the TARGET. [18] Why don’t OUTSIDERs choose to help a TARGET? The most common explanation is OUTSIDERs are fearful of loosing status or worry about getting hurt or can’t decide and choose to remain passive. The ATTACKER asymmetrically takes control of a larger group even though OUTSIDERs potentially have numerical advantage.

This is called the “Bystander Paradox”. [19] For the TARGET there is no easy way out of this situation. It is up to the OUTSIDERs to intervene. By taking a stand, OUTSIDERs have a chance to reduce or circumvent the cycle of bullying. How do you do this? Counter attack the ATTACKER. The single point of weakness an ATTACKER is lack of numerical force. If you can turn enough bystanders back onto the ATTACKER and HENCHMEN you may be able to blunt and reduce the ATTACK at the SIGNAL phase. [20]

What about the bullying on the Internet? What about the bullying on the Internet? Bullies have now discovered the Internet. Can you start Hacking Bullies. [21]


[0] Peter Renshaw, Trampoline 2, flickr, “My Trampoline 2 flickr set: Trampoline was an informal day of sharing ideas in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday 24th of October, 2009.” [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]

[1] Peter Renshaw, Melbourne, Australia, flickr, “My Melbourne Flickr set showing images from around Melbourne CBD.”, [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]

[2] Peter Renshaw, seldomlogical, “Hacking Bullies: ‘is there a better way to identify and disrupt Cyber Bullies?'”., [Accessed Saturday, 13th March 2010]


[3] At the time, I didn’t mention the focus of the talk. I was thinking about what might happen when you try to replicate “social networks” on-line exclusively for women. This was unintentional and might have turned a few listeners off. Wikipedia defines “social networks” as “… a physical description of how people organise themselves. The self organising nature of social networks appear to follow the rules of network science which allows the study of networks to be done using various mathematical techniques.”, [Accessed Saturday, 13th March 2010]


[4] Looking at bullying from a specific gender viewpoint is interesting, because I suspect the more verbal culture women exhibit captured online can now more easily be analysed for signs of bullying. I tend to write about these ideas to look for new insights into problems. Bullying is a problem. I’ve experienced it first hand but not on-line. I see bullying on-line as an bigger problem. We are now in a period of time where “social software” is growing quickly and worth exploring further. See point [2].

[5] Paul Graham, paulgraham.com, “What you can’t say: ‘It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.'”, [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]


[6] Peter Renshaw, flickr, “2009AUG251053: SBS INSIGHT: girls, relationships & cattiness: Computers are powerful amplifiers, so small spats between individuals can become front page news. Tactics used by Women that might work face to face, have the potential to back-fire big time on the Internet. Anywhere computers come into the conversation, the resultant data can be stored, searched, retrieved and with the advent of social software this can now be done real time.”, [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]


[7] Peter Renshaw, seldomlogical, “Hacking Bullies: The idea, a simple hypothesis, ‘Is there a better way to identify and disrupt Cyber Bullies?'”, 13 March 2010, [Accessed Saturday, 13th March 2010]


[8] Fein, R.A. Ph.D., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W.S. Ph.D., Borum, R. Psy.D., Modzeleski W., Reddy M., Ph.D., “Threat Assessment in Schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to create safe school climates”, United States Secret Service & United States Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 2002. (pdf, 754Kb), [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]


[9] Fein, R.A. Ph.D., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W.S. Ph.D., Borum, R. Psy.D., Modzeleski W., Reddy M., Ph.D., “Threat Assessment in Schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to create safe school climates: ‘Targeted violence’ any incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a 1 particular target prior to their violent attack.”, P 3., Ibid, [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]

[10] Fein, R.A. Ph.D., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W.S. Ph.D., Borum, R. Psy.D., Modzeleski W., Reddy M., Ph.D., “Chapter III – Key findings of the safe school initiative’s study of targeted school violence: ‘… Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack …'”, P17., Ibid, [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]

[11] olweus.org, FAQ, “Question: How Common Is Bullying?”, [Accessed Friday, 16th October 2009]


[12] Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, colorado.edu “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (BPP): ‘In the context of school bullying, the victim is usually a single student, who is generally harassed by a group of two or three students, often with a “negative leader.” A considerable proportion of the victims, 20-40 percent, report, however, that they are mainly bullied by a single student.'”, [Accessed Saturday, 13th March 2010]


[13] Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, colorado.edu “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (BPP): Prevalence of Bullying” Ibid, [Accessed Saturday, 13th March 2010]

[14] This is a gross generalisation but for the purposes of the talk it worked. It is interesting to read what Olweus has found looking at this issue. This is some of what he had to say:

“… This shows that it is boys who are more likely to be the perpetrators of what Olweus calls “direct” bullying, that is, bullying which involves direct physical or verbal attacks. He has concluded that girls are more likely to use indirect, subtle, social means to harass other girls. He refers to behaviour such as social exclusion, manipulation of friendship relationships, spreading rumours, etc. …” (Olweus, D. 1993, Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers.)

Sudermann, Jaffe, Schieck, Watson, Lehmann, Greer “A School-based Anti-Violence Program”, 1996, [Accessed Friday April 2, 2010]


[15] The study of Psychopaths has revealed interesting insights into possible ways TARGETS can be exploited for weakness by ATTACKERS. Weakness comes in many forms. One in particular is gait or the way people move. This helps explain how Bullies can scan for TARGETS so easily.

“Psychopaths target anything weak. They assess voice, gait, circumstances, height, weight, etc. Yes fam with gait studies”

Joe Navarro/@navarrotells, [Accessed Wednesday, 7th April 2010]

Interested in spotting Psychopathic behaviour? Here are some further references:

[16] The ATTACKER simply exploits a vulnerability in how individuals view themselves. We may be able to understand how others view some of our personality traits, but not all of them.

[17] ATTACKERS will exploit a TARGETs disparity in size, strength or social status. ATTACKERS use superior force and peer pressure.

[18] Read through reference [15] to understand how ATTACKERS achieve this.

[19] Bystander paradox How can the TARGET decide what the roles OUTSIDERs choose? Are OUTSIDERs supporting the ATTACKER?, helping the TARGET?, or remaining neutral? The TARGET cannot tell. If you fight back and take on an ATTACKER and OUTSIDER can you justify both? This is the bystander paradox – the ability to justify the response when attacked. The ATTACKER has no such problem.

[20] Larry Abramson, NPR (National Public Radio), “Hit Back At Bullies? Not At This School”, “That’s why the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program tries to turn anti-bullying efforts into part of the school culture, rather than just the topic of an occasional assembly. The concepts are simple: Don’t bully, help those who are being bullied and tell an adult what’s going on. Pearre tries to reinforce the idea that the bully doesn’t act alone. The community can take away the bully’s power by refusing to cheer him on, by telling an adult, or perhaps the ultimate step: stepping in to help the victim.”


[21] Peter Renshaw, seldomlogical, “Hacking Bullies: ‘is there a better way to identify and disrupt Cyber Bullies?'”., Ibid. [Accessed Saturday, 13th March 2010]


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