Monday, October 04, 2010

When Cyberbullying Misses the Point...

Last week, a Rutgers student named Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate filmed him allegedly having homosexual relations, then posted the video on the internet. The media quickly classified the story as a case of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is a serious issue and has been prominent on the national agenda ever since the Megan Meier case a few years ago. But as the media frames this as a cyberbullying story highlighting the need for greater regulations on internet behavior, it's possible that they've got it wrong. This is a case of a hate crime being committed; and if it is prosecuted as such, then it changes the conversation dramatically.

For instance, one Time article emphasizes a lack of cyber-education as the root cause of the incident...

Maybe we are where we are because we've had no teachers. No one has instructed us how to use the Internet. We've learned on our own, pointing and clicking, blogging and tweeting. There are no rules of the cyber-road. In a lawless Facebook-Twitter-chat-room culture with scant etiquette and 24/7 saturation, it can be hard to know where to draw the line.

A good point, to be sure. However, it does a great injustice to suggest that a simple lack of cyber-manners or etiquette led to the Clementi incident. Extreme homophobia was to be blame, and the internet was merely the transmission vehicle.

Because of the "cyberbullying" label, Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend, Molly Wei, are only being charged with invasion of privacy. That's a proper charge for many cyberbullying cases. However, if the situation is assessed more soberly, it would be absurd to deny the role that homophobia played in this incident. And in legal terms, there is a monster difference between charging someone with "invasion of privacy" versus charging them with "hate crimes".

Cyberbullying is an extremely serious problem that has to be addressed, both through social norms as well as the legal system. However, in this Clementi case, let's not ignore the large elephant in the room. To frame what happened as a simple invasion of privacy is akin to labelling someone spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue as simple vandalism.

It's not untrue, but it misses the real point.


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