Cyberstalking of Free Speech

This state has gone nuts since the release of the Megan Meier story. If you hadn’t heard of it, Megan was a young girl, 13 going on 14, who killed herself after receiving cruel taunts on her MySpace account. It later came out that the ‘person’ who participated in sending the taunts was fictitious, a persona created by the mother of a former friend of Megan’s.

The weblogging environment, being what it was, ‘outed’ the mother who generated the account, as well as calling for her punishment. Some have called for her death–though, as usual, those demanding such an accounting write anonymously. Others are attempting to destroy the family’s business.

A group of people actually picketed outside of the mother’s house, trying to drive the family out of the community.

Two smaller towns have passed ordinances against ‘cyberbullying’ so far, including the town where Megan lived. Thankfully, some calm is being urged before foolish laws are passed by foolish politicians.

Megan’s story is incredibly sad, but there’s a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. First, Megan was too young for a MySpace account and it was irresponsible of her mother for helping her to set it up. It was also irresponsible for her parents not to monitor it more closely, or to interject some caution when a boy named ‘Josh’ appears out of nowhere at a supposedly private MySpace account.

Secondly, it was an abysmally stupid thing to do for the mother of the former friend of Megan’s to set this account up. However, contrary to the stories going round, she didn’t do so to humiliate Megan, nor was she the one who wrote the taunts that finally pushed Megan to hang herself. It was young kids, the same age as Megan, who either had access to the account, or who were MySpace ‘friends’ of the fictitious boy who wrote the amazingly cruel statements–as kids, in a group, without supervision, are wont to do. Megan, herself, responded with taunts back, written more in hurt and a desperate rejection than anything else, but that subtlety does not translate across networks.

MySpace, also, has to be held responsible. The site should not be accessible by kids under 16, and it needs to provide a way to ensure that access is as restricted as it can be. No child under 16 is secure enough to put themselves into the banshee world of ‘social graphs’. Such networks can attract, equally, the callous and the caring. Adults can usually deal with this, younger teens cannot.

As for Missouri and the hot button item of cyberbullying:

In coming weeks, St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles, O’Fallon, Mo., and St. Charles County are expected to consider similar measures targeting online harassment.

But, those measures are weak and “100 percent symbolic,” said St. Louis attorney J. Bradley Young, an Internet and computer law expert.

“People are jumping on the bandwagon because it’s good politically,” Young said. “But I do see the Dardenne Prairie and the Florissant ordinances as instigators for state, and perhaps federal legislation.”

Legal experts warn against an emotionally-driven response to Megan’s death. Regulating rapidly-evolving technology is difficult, they say, and targeting communication over the Internet is especially troublesome.

“Harassment runs squarely into First Amendment rights, particularly over the Internet,” Young said. “Where does free speech end and where does harassment begin? That is an ill-defined concept.”

This entry was posted in Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Cyberstalking of Free Speech

  1. Karoli says:

    I agree with you about the stupid law. It’s not going to change anything with regard to how people conduct themselves on the Internet and it’s yet another assault on free speech.

    I disagree with you on your comment about her mother being irresponsible. The computer was in the kitchen, the mother monitored the account closely. Megan had to have her mother approve friend requests before adding them, and watched closely over her daughter’s interactions with others. The computer was in a family area where the parents could observe. Her mother had, in fact, told her to get off the computer and stop engaging with the people who were escalating the flames. Megan was less than a month away from her 14th birthday, the cutoff age for MySpace accounts to be set up by minors.

    As the mother of a 13-year old girl, I know that social networks like MySpace are a large part of her social scene. My daughter happens to be a bit of a geek and doesn’t care for the layout or look of MySpace, so we don’t have conflicts about that. But she has her own weblog on Blogger, and her own Flickr account which she has had since she was 12. I’d rather have her feel at home and in control of her online space than be afraid of it. I have access to both accounts and monitor them ,but if something happened to her as a result of these accounts would you also call me irresponsible? What about text messaging and cell phones, another major area of abuse? What about the responsibility that should be accorded to the ones instigating, flaming and intentionally inflicting pain on someone else? Shouldn’t they be responsible, too?

    There is no question that Lori Drew created “Josh”. That’s fact, by her own admission, as written in the police reports. She created the account with the sole intention of discovering what Megan Meier was saying about her daughter. She had the username and password, which she evidently shared with others. Whether or not she encouraged them to create conflict is a question open for speculation. But the fact remains: She had control of the account and should be responsible for its use.

    It’s unclear from all accounts who actually posted the comment that finally sent Megan over the edge, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is this: a 48-year old parent impersonated a ‘cute boy’ to spy on a 13-year old girl online. Would you feel the same way about that if the parent were a man instead of a woman?

    I maintain that there is child abuse involved here, and someone in law enforcement should have considered it from that standpoint instead of shrugging and essentially whining about the laws not having caught up with the world. What crap.

  2. Shelley says:

    We have to disagree, Karoli, and it all boils down to allowing this unknown ‘Josh’ appearing out of nowhere, to communicate with her daughter. Would you allow your daughter to get into a cyber relationship with a boy who you don’t know, who won’t provide his phone or contact info, and who writes that supposedly his family doesn’t own a phone, and that he’s not in school because he’s home schooled? Doesn’t any of this trigger alarms with you?

    That the woman who created the Josh account acted irresponsibly and stupidly is without question: she reminds me too many other parents I’ve seen in the past who get involved in an incredibly negatively way in their kids lives, not thinking about the consequences.

    There is no question about who posted the last messages — this was covered in the original St. Charles article. It was not one of the adults who wrote the hateful stuff as Josh, and it was the kids who ‘friended’ Josh, who piled on. And Megan responded back, saying, as her mother mentioned, some pretty nasty stuff herself. She did so, though, as a defensive mechanism, terribly hurt. But that does not communicate across the internet.

    This was not child abuse. This was an ugly incident between people who knew each other, and a young girl caught in the middle.

  3. Shelley says:

    “I have access to both accounts and monitor them ,but if something happened to her as a result of these accounts would you also call me irresponsible? ”

    At 13? Yes, I’m sorry to say, but I would.

    Would you allow you daughter to be watched by an unknown stranger?

    Would you allow your daughter to be baby sat by a man in his 40′s who says he just likes to be around kids?

    Would you allow your daughter to attend the birthday party of a boy you don’t know, have never met, and who won’t provide a phone number, or address?

    If you wouldn’t allow any of these actions in real space, why the hell would you allow them in cyberspace?

    At what point in time does society have to take over to protect your child?

  4. Karoli says:

    Shelley,

    Society is nothing more than the collective group of parties responsible for maintaining order as a collective whole. When one of those parties — responsible parties — steps out of their role as law-abider or order-maintainer, if you will, in order to victimize a child (who is not yet a part of the collective group we call ‘society’), we do have a responsibility to put an end to it.

    The only place we differ is who bears the responsibility. You maintain that it’s solely the parents of Megan; I maintain that there is an implied social contract that says we, as a society, will act in a responsible fashion toward children and those who do not, should be held accountable. I say it was Lori Drew who behaved irresponsibly. You say it was Tina Meier. The instigator here was Lori Drew, and she didn’t just stop at creating the account and doing a little sleuthing. She handed out the username and password to Megan’s peers, breaching that social contract a second time by encouraging them to go and have some big fun behind a fake name.

    As to your question about letting my daughter accept a friend invitation from a sixteen year old boy, I will say that I would not allow that without knowing him face-to-face first. I do think that Tina Meier made a mistake there. I’m sure she felt that she could (and did, from the accounts I’ve read) monitor it, until that day, when things spun out of control.

    As we both know, communications online can go from bad to worse to awful in the span of about 10 minutes. It doesn’t take much at all to get things going. That appears to be the case here.

    So are you saying that Lori Drew should get a full pass on any responsibility for what happened? Is it your position that the Meiers are the ones solely responsible?

    On that, we will have to agree to disagree.

  5. Shelley says:

    Again, you’re spinning behavior, Karoli. Not once did I say that the fault was entirely on the parents (not mother, parents) of the child who killed herself. I said that the fault was on the woman who created the account AND the parents AND MySpace, and probably the parents of the other kids who were involved, because THEY didn’t monitor their kids accounts, either. People who insist on allowing such young children to have accounts on sites like MySpace should probably also accept some of the blame, too.

    There are laws to protect children and adults, both. As the police, the prosecutor, the FBI, and even a lawyer specializing in lawsuits all determined: none were broken. This implies a whole lot more was going on then one evil woman deliberately seeking to get a disturbed child to kill herself.

    You say the mother handed out the password. I find it unlikely that the mother handed out the password. I find it much more likely that the former friend of Megan’s is behind most of this, if not all (after all, she and Megan once created a fictional account to attract boys) and the mother is accepting the blame for her child’s actions. Like a parent, should.

    Think rationally: would an adult give out a password for this account to the child’s friends? Or would the child?

    Now YOU can choose to continue to think one dimensionally, like the others who picketed the Drews house in their sanctimonious, nauseatingly righteous manner; playing at being judge and jury, because none of you have to accept responsibility for your actions, which are destroying a family (which happens to have a child Megan’s age in it, if you’re worried about kids); or you can choose to acknowledge, perhaps there is more to the story than you’re seeing, and that no one is without ‘blame’ in this tragic incident.

  6. Bud Gibson says:

    Personally, I tend to put the most blame on the aggressors in these situations. Every day, we put ourselves at risk by simply being out in the world. Should my 7 year old son be playing in the front yard without my direct supervision right now?

    Just because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, even a place you shouldn’t be, does not mean that people have the right to do whatever they will.

  7. Shelley says:

    Parents have to accept some responsibility for what happens to their children when they allow them to have an online presence. It’s no different than allowing your children to play with matches or with a loaded gun: kids don’t make good decisions. Kids have a harder time dealing with fiction, as compared to fact; dealing with the aggressive behavior in these online communities, or learning to differentiate between people who are real, and people who are predators. Or, Megan’s mother once said about Megan, making good choices.

  8. gregbo says:

    How can MySpace ensure that access to its site is restricted to those under 16?

    Merely having people assert that they are at least 16 doesn’t work.

    If it is necessary to provide some sort of identification, such as a SSN, it needs to be validated, which requires the extra step of contacting whatever agency does the validation. The application process could be slowed down by unavailability of the agency site, making MySpace less attractive. Furthermore, one must trust that agency sites have not been compromised, keep accurate records, etc. (This becomes a tricky issue if MySpace wants to have an international user base.)

    All of these extra steps cost more money to MySpace, which can’t be devoted to other aspects of the service. Or they are passed to whoever foots the bill for the service (advertisers), and thence onto customers of the advertisers.

    An argument can be made that MySpace shouldn’t be held responsible if whoever accesses the site lies about their credentials. I don’t know how US law works in such a case. For example, if someone underage buys alcohol, lies about their age, and causes an accident. I don’t see how whoever sold the alcohol could be held responsible, since the seller may not have the tools to validate the credentials.

  9. Shelley says:

    Actually in the States, whoever sold or supplied the alcohol is liable. That’s why we have identification cards with our age on them.

    One could also demand that a credit card be provided to sign up for a MySpace account, but no charge made.

    Or we can make an assumption that there is no guarantee that whoever is in this space is who they say they are, and parents need to have heart to heart chats with their kids about the dangers.

    All the parents in this story let their kids have accounts when they were under the age set by MySpace. So much for demonstrating to their children the importance of respecting rules set by others.

  10. Bud Gibson says:

    I’m not sure you can compare the Internet or myspace to a loaded gun. They’re actually both social situations.

    You almost seem to be making the case that we should accept an anything goes behavior online. Should we? I note that you, yourself don’t seem to buy into that idea as you occasionally delete comments from your site.

    BTW, I don’t hold Megan’s parents without fault. The overwhelming view seems to be to hold the other girl’s mother more at fault, and I pretty much concur with that.

  11. Shelley says:

    Karoli, Bud, my apologies for snapping at both of you. This situation has been blown out of recognition in our area.

  12. Bud Gibson says:

    Don’t worry overly about it. These are important topics where it’s not clear what the right answer is, but it feels like something needs to be done. That tends to raise passions.

    I was probably a little heated myself.

  13. Elaine says:

    we can make an assumption that there is no guarantee that whoever is in this space is who they say they are, and parents need to have heart to heart chats with their kids about the dangers

    I think that’s what it comes down to in any case, unfortunately.

    I’m remembering being 13…and not thinking very positively of it, honestly. That year I got ganged up on by a group of popular kids over a crush that a (very nerdy) boy* had on me. I can’t even explain it now. I also got tormented by another group, all girls, for several weeks while I walked home each day, including them throwing my viola into the middle of the road and finally attempting to choke my 10-year-old sister.

    That was where Mom got involved, because sis came home with bruises on her neck and I was (IIRC) crying. And then the dean (?) got involved, and the sheriff, and that pretty much put an end to it.

    Okay, wow. Just remembering all of that got me trembling.

    Which is by way of saying that kids suck, regardless of the venue.

    Slightly off topic, I was reading Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters, and while I find some of it ludicrous, there’s something quite compelling about the piece on nerd kids — the hothouse/jail quality of the modern American school.

    * Added: Hi, Kermix!