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For Melania Trump, a cyberbullying pledge followed by inaction

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump.SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When Melania Trump pledged to make combating cyberbullies a pet issue last November, the idea was met with a healthy measure of skepticism. After all, her husband was just finishing up a presidential campaign fueled by heated social media attacks.

Now, almost six months after Melania stood at Donald Trump’s side as he took the oath of office, she has done nothing publicly to live up to her original promise — and probably has lost her chance to do anything effective, given the president’s continued aggressive behavior on social media, according to experts in the field.

“I wish Melania would really take this on. There’s no way that she can,” said Parry Aftab, founder of WiredSafety, an advocacy group. “She can’t. It won’t work. There’s no credibility.”


In fact, advocates fear that President Trump — through his tweets — may actually be providing aggressors with a model for lashing out at those perceived as weaker.

The federal government defines cyberbullying as behavior between school-aged children, but experts said that President Trump’s behavior fits their understanding of the phenomenon.

“The tweets over time speak for themselves and meet the definition of bullying,” said Susan Swearer, who is on the Research Advisory Board for the Born this Way Foundation, an antibullying group founded by Lady Gaga.

Swearer, who is also a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, described bullying as repeated, intentional, mean behavior “in a relationship characterized by an imbalance of power.”

In recent days, the president has used his Twitter account to attack MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, saying that on New Year’s Eve she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” (she wasn’t) and accusing her of having a “low I.Q.” (she doesn’t). The president labeled her cohost, Joe Scarborough, as “psycho” (there’s no evidence it’s true).


When Melania Trump’s office was asked about his Twitter outburst, her office issued a statement defending it. “As the First Lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,” Melania Trump’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.

Even after the Brzezinski tweet was widely denounced, the president again attacked the media, with a tweet showing a video of Donald Trump body-slamming another man back in the day when he was promoting professional wrestling. The video that he tweeted had been altered: The face of the man Trump was attacking was obscured with the CNN logo, a network that the president frequently criticizes.

The promise that Melania Trump would work to reduce cyberbullying came in a brief speech she gave in the Philadelphia suburb of Berwyn, Pa., on Nov. 3, where she discussed how upsetting bullying can be to children.

“Technology has changed our universe. But like anything that is powerful, it can have a bad side,” she said. “As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile. They are hurt when they are made fun of or made to feel less in looks or intelligence.”

Melania Trump added that the culture has become “too mean and too rough” and said: “We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other. . . . It will be one of the main focuses of my work if I’m privileged enough to become your first lady.”


Her comments, which came at the end of a roughly 15-minute speech, were widely seen as a response to criticism leveled by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

President Trump stood as First Lady Melania Trump spoke, in Krasinski Square, in Warsaw, Poland on Thursday. Alik Keplicz/Associated Press

A week earlier, Clinton had released a plan to combat cyberbullying that would have provided federal matching dollars for states that developed programs.

At the same time, the Clinton campaign began airing a 30-second spot featuring a boy with muscular dystrophy who explained that he’d been the target of bullying and was offended when Donald Trump mocked a disabled journalist during a November 2015 rally.

“I don’t want bullies in my life, and I don’t want one in the White House,” said the boy, who identified himself as Bryce, in the Clinton ad.

Earlier in the campaign, Donald Trump also used social media to disparage Alicia Machado, who had been named Miss Universe when he owned the pageant. After winning, she had gained weight, causing Trump to publicly ridicule her. After Clinton highlighted these comments during a debate, Trump fired back on Twitter, calling Machado “disgusting” and urging his followers to “check out” her “sex tape.”

A spokeswoman for Melania Trump declined to directly answer a question about whether the first lady has taken any steps to combat cyberbullying.

“The First Lady continues to be thoughtful about her platform and we look forward to announcing something in the coming weeks,” Grisham told the Globe. She did not respond to follow-up questions requesting clarification.


The federal government runs a Twitter account called @StopBullyingGov along with the website StopBullying.gov. A blog hosted on the website has been updated twice since Trump took office, but the Twitter account has been far more active.

Both are hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which would see deep cuts under President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget. No reductions are expected for the website, which cost $150,000 to run last year, said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the department. “We’re planning on updating the site and embracing new initiatives,” Weber said.

Much of the education on combating cyberbullying is provided by nonprofits or through partnerships with companies, rather than via federal grants. That’s why there was some enthusiasm in the prevention community about the idea that the first lady could be taking on the issue from her high-profile role at the White House.

But none of the experts reached for this article were aware of Melania Trump doing anything on it since her initial comments.

“She nor anyone at the White House has contacted us. You’re the 50th person to ask,” said Justin Patchin, who is the codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. “We know everyone in the field. And we don’t know anyone she’s reached out to.”

Patchin said it would be difficult to square Melania Trump’s defense of her husband’s online behavior with best practices for discouraging cyberbullying.


“Retaliation is not among the top options for students who are targets” of cyberbullying, he said, referring to President Trump’s tendency to settle scores online.

He said that if the White House wanted to seriously take on the issue, there would have to be some kind of acknowledgment that the president’s behavior is problematic.

“It could be an important lesson, that we get caught up in the moment, and when people say hurtful things about us, we want to react,” Patchin said.

“This could be an opportunity for her and the president to step back and say, ‘The moment got the better of me. I regret what I said.’ ”

Instead the president continued his attacks two days after the initial face lift tweet, though with a very slightly more conciliatory tone.

“Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika are not bad people,” Trump tweeted.

First Lady Melania Trump smiled during a visit at the Copernicus Science Center, an interactive science museum geared heavily to young people, in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday.Petr David Josek/Globe Staff

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.