Monday, November 26, 2007

Cyberbullying and Vigilante Justice Online...

When Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from Missouri, committed suicide because she was being bullied relentlessly on MySpace, all signs pointed to this being yet another tragic case expressing the typical dangers of online social networks. However, the story then took an unexpected turn when it was discovered that the bullying was done by Lori Drew, who was the mother of one of Megan's classmates, and had created a fake MySpace account under the name of "Josh Evans", also purporting to be 16 years old.

Now, the police had discovered that Lori Drew was the cyberbully responsible for Meier's suicide, and the local newspaper report described the case, but did not identify Drew by name. This is nothing unusual - after all, people are considered innocent until proven guilty. However, a middle-aged mother living in Virginia, Sarah Wells, was so outraged by the story that she did some Google searching, and published Lori Drew's name on her blog. Consequently, her blog readers followed by also posting her husband's name, the family's address and phone number, a cellphone number, the name of the family's advertising company, and the names and phone numbers of clients with whom they worked.

"In retaliation, readers called Drew's advertising clients to urge them to withdraw their business from her. But it wasn't long before there were death threats, a brick through a window and calls to set the Drews' house on fire."

This is more than a simple case of cyberbullying and online vigilantism. As Kim Zetter of Wired writes, "the firestorm that followed illustrates what happens when the social imperative to punish those in a community who violate social norms plays out over the internet... But the drive for social shaming - to right a wrong and restore social balance - can run amok and create paradoxical consequences, especially on the internet where people instigate mobs in ways they wouldn't do offline."

First of all, Zetter is right to point out the paradox of online vigilantism: that shaming people publicly in order to enforce social norms actually creates an anarchic environment, making social norms less enforceable.

Second, privacy advocates ought to have a problem with the vigilantes as well. Posting someone's personal information on a public website, even when they are an alleged perpetrator of some crime, sets a horrific precedent of justifying violations of privacy if "someone deserves it". Tantamount to privacy advocates is the principle that violating someone's personal privacy in such a public manner should never be considered a weapon to coerce certain types of social behavior.

Third, let us take a moment to remember the basic problem with vigilante justice - that they often get it wrong. For example, take the case two years ago when a stock clerk had his cell phone stolen from his car. When pictures from his phone were being posted online, the clerk identified the thief and enlisted internet vigilantes to defame him with racist remarks and other smearing tactics. Only later it was discovered that the "thief" was actually a 16-year-old kid whose mother had bought the cell phone from a street vendor. The poor kid who had been harassed by the vigilantes and had his name and reputation destroyed was actually not the thief at all.

None of this is meant to defend the cyberbullying and adoption of a false identity by Lori Drew, whose actions were certainly despicable. However, the fact is that most of the people who have been publishing Drew's personal information have been doing so under a cloak of anonymity. Whether you consider these people activists or vigilantes, there should be more transparency and accountability. In other words, if these people are so convinced that they are working towards a noble purpose, then have them post their real names. Under such circumstances (which exist in real-space, as opposed to cyberspace), people are less likely to engage in such aggressive behavior if they perceive that there will be consequences for their actions.

In the end, there needs to be more civility in cyberspatial behavior, and less fury and deception. That was surely the original reason for the outrage against Lori Drew. But in their retaliatory tactics, the vigilantes have become the very thing they set out to destroy.


At 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written and some good points for sure. I still think that Lori had (and has) it coming.

An anonymous Internet Vigilante


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