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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Another adult cyberbullying case in MO

A 40-year-old Missouri woman has been charged with felony cyberbullying for posting the photo and contact info of a 17-year-old girl in the "Casual Encounters" section of Craigslist, according to a report at CBSNEWS.com. Prosecutors said the posting, allegedly made by Elizabeth Thrasher of St. Peters in the St. Louis area, "suggested the girl was seeking a sexual encounter," and police said the girl "received lewd messages and photographs from men she didn't know and contacted police." They also said the girl is the daughter of Thrasher's ex-husband's girlfriend. Thrasher is the first person to be charged with felony cyberbullying under Missouri's one-year-old cyberbullying law, passed after the suicide of Megan Meier. Under that law cyberbullying is a felony "if a victim is 17 or younger and the suspect 21 or older," according to the report.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Lori Drew acquitted in cyberbullying case

In a second ruling in the Megan Meier cyberbullying case, a federal judge yesterday threw out Lori Drew's three misdemeanor convictions of late last year, the Wired "Threat Level" blog reports. "The case against Drew hinged on the government’s novel argument that violating MySpace’s terms of service was the legal equivalent of computer hacking." US District Judge George Wu, who is expected to issue his written opinion early next week, told Wired that the prosecutors were basing their arguments on the premise that it's up to a Web site operator "to determine what is a crime.... And therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract," the judge said, referring to a site's Terms of Service. What Judge Wu's ruling did not concern was testimony in the case last year which "showed that nobody involved in the hoax [against Megan Meier] actually read the terms of service." In that testimony, Ashley Grills, who was also involved in the hoax against Megan Meier and was testifying under a grant of immunity, "also said that the hoax was her idea, not Drew’s, and that it was Grills who created the Josh Evans profile, and later sent the cruel message that tipped the emotionally vulnerable 13-year-old girl into her final, tragic act." This latest ruling was about the prosecution's application of the law to cyberbullying, and a commentary from the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington zooms in on that, saying that one problem with the discussion of this case (leading to confused lawmaking) has been conflation of cyberbullying (which the PFF calls "kid-on-kid" online abuse), general online harassment (involving people of all ages), and adult-on-kid online harassment (as in the Meier case). Here's the Los Angeles Times's coverage of this week's news and my coverage last December.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Missouri's new cyberharassment law

Seven people have been prosecuted under Missouri's new online-harassment law, passed after 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide as a result of cyberbullying in 2006. "When a press report in 2007 revealed the role that 47-year-old Lori Drew played in Meier's harassment, local authorities felt pressured to charge Drew with a crime, but could find no law under which to prosecute her. So Missouri lawmakers drafted legislation to outlaw future threats or harassing communication that causes emotional distress," Wired's Kim Zetter reports, adding that, under this law, either misdemeanor or felony charges can apply. The seven current cases involve everything from harassing messages to physical threats, most involved text messages via cellphone, and - interestingly - none of the cases Wired cites involved social networking. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch cites the view of author and cyberbullying expert Justin Patchin that laws like Missouri's "fail to deter such behavior by young people because most don't understand what cyberbullying is." They may be more effective, he added, in "protecting children targeted by adults," but the Post-Dispatch says he's "skeptical that such laws will be upheld in courts." At least 18 states now have laws targeting Internet harassment and cyberstalking, according to the Post-Dispatch. Here's the ReadWriteWeb blog on all this with a post about current efforts to reduce or end online anonymity.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Anti-cyberbullying teachable moment

There has been a lot of news coverage about the legal issues surrounding the Megan Meier case, but not many useful takeaways for parents and kids. Here are some great talking points for family discussion from Nancy Willard, author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens and director of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use....

  • "Megan was allowed to establish a friendship link with someone who was not known in person by her or her friends. Especially when starting an account on a social-networking site, teens should link only to friends. Later, they may expand to acquaintances or friends of friends - someone known in person by a person they know. This way, they know that no false persona has been established. When they are much older [maybe 18+], perhaps strangers.

  • "Whenever they establish a friendship link - especially to someone they do not know well - they should take the time to carefully review the person's profile to see if anything posted causes concerns. What are this person's friends like? What images has this person posted? How does this person communicate in public and private? And how does all of this reflect on this person's values? They might also want to keep in mind that others will be judging them based on their friends, images, and communications.

  • "They need to be very alert to signs that someone is trying to manipulate them. The key signs of this are overly friendly messages, including comments like, 'Wow, you're hot,' "I am really glad I met you" and the like. [See "How social influencing works."]

  • "Teens also should be very careful if anyone appears to be trying to establish a special relationship - when there is really no 'real world' basis for that relationship.

  • "Teens are going through a very vulnerable time and really want to find acceptance. So they are vulnerable to fantasy online love. They send messages back and forth indicating how much they love the other person - just because they want to receive these same messages and it's fun to think you have this great love relationship - just like in the movies. They need to understand how to distinguish between fantasy love and real relationships that are healthy and viable.

  • "If someone starts to communicate in a hurtful manner, the appropriate response is to leave the site, end the communication, and/or block the person. Filing a complaint [as in using social sites' "Report abuse" buttons] may also be an option. If someone makes you mad online, keep your hands off the keyboard - because you will just make things worse [emphasis mine]."

    So the key take-away, I think, is that the younger the child the more important it is to keep online socializing as grounded as possible in real life. As teens mature, their brains are developing, particularly the impulse-control "executive" part that understands consequences, so they generally get better at navigating the complexities of their social networks - the developing social norms, tools, signals, and relationships. It's a lot to figure out, and they deserve not just advice but, more importantly, the steady back-up that a parent or other caring adult mentor can offer: perspective that is always running in the background and ready to come forward at teachable moments - hopefully in a loving, nonconfrontational way that keeps communication lines open.

    [Readers, your own additions, responses, tips, and experiences are most welcome in our ConnectSafely forum or via email to anne[at]netfamilynews.org. With you permission, I like to publish them for the benefit of all.]

    Readers, your own additions, responses, tips, and experiences are most welcome in our ConnectSafely forum or via email to anne[at]netfamilynews.org. With you permission, I like to publish them for the benefit of all.

    Related links

  • All the details. Kim Zetter of Wired provided some of the most steady, in-depth reporting on the Drew case. Here's her blog and her participation in NPR's "Talk of the Nation" in a segment headlined "Is Creating a Fake Online Profile a Criminal Act?"
  • Not the right law. "MySpace Suicide Prosecutors Used Wrong Law," by my ConnectSafely.org co-director at CBSNEWS.com
  • Terms of Use. "Cyberbullying verdict turns rule-breakers into criminals" in the Toronto Globe & Mail
  • Cyberbullying authority. "Age & identity misrepresentation on the Internet," by cyberbullying book author Sameer Hinduja, who was interviewed by the New York Times for its story on the Meier case
  • "Questions raised by Megan Meier case"
  • "Tips to help stop cyberbullying"

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  • Tuesday, December 02, 2008

    Questions raised by Megan Meier case

    Although Lori Drew was convicted only on misdemeanor charges last week and though the case may yet be dismissed, the questions it raises are important ones:

  • Legal

    Although what happened between the Meiers and Drews in the St. Louis area in 2006 was about cyberbullying, the case against Drew wasn't, actually. It was about computer fraud. Ms. Drew's involvement in the creation of a fake profile (or real profile of a fictional teen boy character) was called by the prosecutors "unauthorized access" violating federal computer fraud law, the New York Times reports. According to the Washington Post, the case thus "expands the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1986 as a tool against hackers, to include social networking Web sites." Even so, the Post cites legal experts as saying, this was "the country's first cyberbullying verdict."

    The Times reports that MySpace's terms of service require users to be "truthful and accurate" when they sign up for an account, yet a lot of people of all ages all over the Web fictionalize or veil their identities for many reasons - the way authors with pen names have as long as there have been books. So do cops pretending to be 14-year-old girls as they set up stings to catch online predators. In other words, there are both legitimate (including protective) and ill-intentioned reasons to be pseudonymous or anonymous online. Does this case jeopardize legitimate use of anonymity (see also "Fictionalizing their profiles" and "Online anonymity vs. cyberbullying concerns")?

    Another question is about those terms of service. Does this case mean social-networking sites must enforce their terms of use? That could be both good and bad. Terms of use could become more of a mutual contract between site and users whereby users (or their parents) might actually have some sort of recourse if terms are violated by bullies. On the downside, rigid enforcement does not always have good results, where human beings (and adolescent behavior) are concerned. This is a good reminder, though, that parents and kids together check site terms of use for what they say about truthfulness. I think it also suggests that social sites consider putting their terms in plain English! But it's concerning if, as the result of this case, violation of terms could be considered criminal behavior. The proverbial jury's still out on that last point.

    Bad for case law: "Let's also make one thing very clear," writes social media researcher danah boyd (who lower-cases her name). "This case is NOT TYPICAL [it's extreme and extremely unusual]. Many are clamoring to make laws based on this case and one thing we know is that bad cases make bad case law. Most of the cases focus on the technology rather than the damage of psychological abuse and the misuse of adult power." I agree. This story, if not the case, is not about computers or social networking or solely online behavior; it's about behavior. Which leads to the parenting set of questions....

  • Parental

    The message that parents need to be involved in right ways - as moderators (in every sense of the word) and not accomplices - is only getting stronger. Though this is a tough message for busy parents to hear, we want to be in the mix. Just as we've always needed to be engaged in our teens' offline social lives - because a primary task of adolescent brain development is risk assessment - we need to be involved in their online lives too.

    We also don't want our role to be diminished in favor of "protective" law or policy, because we don't want our children's free speech and privacy rights taken away or in any way diminished ostensibly "for their own protection." Engaged parents are vital supporters of their children's rights.

    An important aspect of this for parents to keep in mind is that the high visibility of an extreme case and increasing news coverage of cyberbullying in general do not mean bullying online is on the rise or adolescent behavior has changed. This is important to keep in mind about social networking too. Danah boyd makes the point that the Internet probably hasn't increased the amount of bullying; rather, it has made it and all adolescent behavior more visible - certainly, but naturally, with disturbing effect - to adults. "Now adults can see it. Most adults think that this means that the Internet is the culprit, but this logic is flawed and dangerous. Stifling bullying online won't make bullying go away; it'll just send it back underground. The visibility gives us an advantage. If we see it, we can work with it to stop it." Yes!

  • Potential positive outcome

    Peer support and counseling online - by "digital street workers" - is what danah boyd proposes. When she was in college, danah writes, fellow students volunteered as street workers to help at-risk "teens on the street find resources and help. They directed them to psychologists, doctors, and social workers. We need a program like this for the digital streets. We need college-aged young adults to troll the digital world looking out for teens who are in trouble and helping them seek help. We need online counselors who can work with minors to address their behavioral issues without forcing the minor to contend with parents or bureaucracy. We need online social workers that can connect with kids and help them understand their options."

    She's talking about kids whose parents simply aren't there - the young people who are at risk online. "They are the kids who are being beaten at home and blog about it. They are the kids who publicly humiliate other kids to get attention. They are the kids who seek sex with strangers as a form of validation. They are the kids who are lonely, suicidal, and self-destructive.... They are calling out for help. Why aren't we listening? And why are we blaming the technology instead?" When we stop doing that, we can really start helping at-risk youth online and increasing online safety.

    I propose that all social sites and services employ...

    1. "Digital street workers" (older peers/young adults as online community volunteers) and
    2. Paid, trained counselors or social workers on their customer-service staffs - in addition to community moderators for socializing by minors.

    Your views on any of this would be most welcome - via anne[at]netfamilynews.org, in this blog, or in our ConnectSafely forum. With your permission, I often publish readers' comments for everybody's benefit.

    Related links

  • "The 'MySpace Suicide' Case, Social Networking, and the Law" in Findlaw
  • My first post on the Megan Meier case, Nov. '07 "Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light." See also "Dismissal urged in Megan Meier case."

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  • Wednesday, November 26, 2008

    Verdict in Megan Meier case

    In the cyberbullying case against Lori Drew, the Missouri mother involved in the creation of a fake MySpace profile that led to Megan Meier's suicide, "a federal jury delivered a mixed verdict," the Los Angeles Times reports. She was convicted of misdemeanor charges involving unlawful computer access, but the jury "rejected more serious felony charges." It was also "deadlocked on a conspiracy count." The L.A. Times added that Drew "faces anywhere from probation to three years in prison." For details on what happened, see my first post on the story a little over a year ago.

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    Friday, August 08, 2008

    Troll exploits: Critical thinking needed

    There are two kinds of troll victims, actually: those who are directly and cruelly tormented by trolls and those who are manipulated into contributing to the attacks. That's one of my takeaways from an insightful New York Times Magazine article about people who use the Internet to attack, in depraved ways, other people who are emotionally vulnerable. Trolls steal identities, torment with 24/7 phone calls, and fictionalize profiles and credit records, for example, putting a "fabricated narrative of [a person's] career alongside her real Social Security number and address" in hacked databases or public blogs.

    As an understated photo caption reads, trolls have "a fluid morality and a disdain for pretty much everyone else online," and that disdain is expressed in manipulations of the second kind of victim - emotionally involved observers. Writer Mattathias Schwartz uses the Meghan Meier suicide case as an example.

    A troll with whom Schwartz spent time - Jason Fortuny, who was a victim himself as a child - sees his exploits as human-behavior experiments, Schwartz writes. One of his experiments in manipulating the public was the "Megan Had It Coming" blog in which Fortuny posed as Lori Drew (the mother who created the profile of a fictitious boy which reportedly led to Megan's suicide) and wrote cruel posts about the girl after her death. The blog posts drew some 3,600 angry reactions from people throughout the US. That's the other, though much less victimized, kind of victim: unwitting subjects of troll experiments who can became virtual vigilante mobs and do exactly what the instigators would like them to do. Fortuny's blog "was intended, he says, to question the public’s hunger for remorse [revenge, maybe?] and to challenge the enforceability of cyberharassment laws like the one passed by Megan’s town after her death." I'd say this is a sub-moral of the troll story and another reminder of the growing importance of critical thinking in a relatively anonymous medium.

    Toward the end of his article, Schwartz asks a good question: "Is the effort to control what’s said [and done online] always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?" [Among other things, don't miss Schwartz's reflection on what's to blame for this behavior and what can or should be done about it - e.g.: "Ultimately, as Fortuny suggests, trolling will stop only when its audience stops taking trolls seriously."] In any case, what we see online, sometimes in the most trusted places, must very often be taken with a grain of salt - so that, at the very least, we (and our children) are not taken in like zombie computers by people motivated to do harm.

    Perspective from across the Atlantic

    I had an email conversation about this with friend and researcher Daniel Cardoso with EU Kids Online's Portugal research team in Lisbon. Here's some of his critical thinking:

    "In dealing with trolling, we can't forget about the importance of free speech. And trying to erase any input from the trolls is not only dangerous, but counter-productive (since they can always regroup someplace else).... Maybe one day trolling will wane, but bullying and cyber bullying won't go away magically. People are people on the Internet ... and people trying to hurt others will always abound. The Internet is the great 'projector.' It empowers good people and bad people by projecting their actions far beyond the physical barriers, and far beyond any physical constraints. In the end ... only the community can decide when it has had enough of trolling....

    "So let us look at trolls. Do we find a homogenous group? I doubt it. I think we're more likely to find people with very different agendas collaborating for the sake of their end results.... [The phenomenon] is just too new, and people seem to think that it's too different. Maybe when we start seeing that with great powers come great responsibilities, we'll be more careful.... The most dangerous trolls are those with more power - more technical expertise. But that's just like anywhere else. A robber with a gun will always be more dangerous than a bare-handed one, in theory.... The Internet brings with it the potential to do in different ways the same old things, I think. So there will be an 'Internet way' to deal with the issue, but not an 'Internet way' to make it go away, since the Internet didn't start it."

    Related links

  • A New Yorker profile of a master manipulator in real life, "The Chameleon" brings new meaning to the term virtual reality (thanks to Andy Carvin for pointing this piece out)
  • "Videogames can't be blamed for humanity's problems" at CNET

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  • Wednesday, August 06, 2008

    Dismissal urged in Megan Meier case

    Twelve law professors and several Internet civil liberties organizations say that a conviction in the federal case against Lori Drew in the suicide of Megan Meier would have the effect of "criminalizing the everyday conduct of millions of internet users." An amicus brief submitted for the group concluded: "Megan Meier's death was a terrible tragedy, and there is an understandable desire to hold the Defendant somehow accountable for it, if Defendant's conduct was as alleged. But a dangerously overbroad construction of the CFAA [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] would criminalize the everyday conduct of millions of internet users. The novel - indeed, unprecedented in the history of the CFAA - interpretation ... advanced in the indictment cannot be squared with the plain language of the statute, its legislative history, and the constitutional requirements that criminal statutes provide citizens fair notice, avoid vagueness and comport with the First Amendment." They urge the Court to dismiss Drew's indictment. Here are the Electronic Frontier Foundation's press release on the position and the amicus brief itself in pdf format. For background, here's my original post on the Meier case.

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    Tuesday, May 27, 2008

    'Culture of responsibility' for the social Web

    This deserves notice: "What we need in response to this and other equally alarming cases is a new culture of responsibility where government, industry, schools, parents and the kids themselves share differing and overlapping responsibilities for what happens online so that Megan's untimely death is not repeated, nor the emergence of a cyber lynch mob ever needed again," wrote Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, in the Huffington Post. He was referring to what the most intelligent response to the Megan Meier tragedy (see "Indictment in Megan Meier case" here) would be. I agree wholeheartedly. It's the next phase of online-safety advocacy: calling for and contributing to a concerted collective effort toward an online culture of responsibility - a sense of citizenship online as well as off - starting with the first references to it at home and school. [See also "Imposter profiles: No easy solution."]

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    Friday, February 01, 2008

    Cyberbullying and free speech

    Legislation proposed around the US after the tragic case of a Missouri teen's suicide following cyberbullying is fuel for an important discussion about whether such laws are needed. "Officials from Megan [Meier]’s town of Dardenne Prairie wasted no time unanimously passing a statute that makes Internet harassment a local misdemeanor," writes ConnectSafely.org co-director Larry Magid in a commentary at CBSNEWS.com. "Others have called for state and federal legislation to make it a crime to post comments anonymously or under an assumed identity." Larry points to the unintended consequences of overreaching laws drafted in reaction to an extremely rare occurrence. What is not rare - and in fact affects millions of young people - is online bullying by peers. Dealing with age-old social problem that is now common online and - overseas and increasingly in the US on mobile phones - is going to take a great deal of education and rational, not reactive, discussion in schools, homes, legislatures, and the media. Previous NetFamilyNews coverage of the Meier case can be found here and here.

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