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Friday, August 08, 2008

P2P healing in cyberbullying case

We hear so much in the news about teen meanness and harassment toward each other online that it's quite amazing to find a national story about kindness. In the case of Olivia Gardner, the kindness came from two sisters in a nearby town, Sarah and Emily Buder in Mill Valley, Calif., who read in the newspaper about how Olivia was being bullied and wanted to help, they say in their MySpace video. The in-school bullying of Olivia started, unbelievably, after she had an epileptic seizure. "Then someone started an 'Olivia Haters Club' on the Internet with pornographic emails," MSNBC reports. Her mother couldn't help - she told MSNBC that no words of comfort helped. It was thousands of letters, starting with messages of support from Sarah and Emily, that started Olivia on the road back from near-daily suicidal thoughts to healing. The letters came from all over the countries, not only with messages of love and support but also stories of how the writers too had been bullied. The result of all this is a new book from HarperCollins, Letters to a Bullied Girl: Messages of Healing and Hope, by Olivia Gardner, Emily Buder, and Sarah Buder. [For experts' advice on the online kind of bullying, see the books Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, by Patricia Agatston, Susan Limber, and Robin Kowalski, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats, by Nancy Willard, and a book coming out this month: Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying, by Profs. Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin.]

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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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  • Thursday, August 07, 2008

    Middle school cyberbullying a federal case

    A mean conversation about a middle-school peer is videotaped off school grounds, is uploaded to YouTube, and suddenly their school's administrators have to figure out what to do about it. "Citing 'cyberbullying' concerns, school administrators [in Beverly Hills] suspended for two days the student who uploaded the video, without disciplining others in the recording. The suspended student sued the school district in June in federal district court in Los Angeles, saying her free-speech rights were violated," the Los Angeles Times reports. The Times cites one legal expert as saying that, unless the school shows evidence of "substantial disruption of school business" by the video it doesn't have much of a case.


    Back-to-school tech

    Electronics retailers really like this time of year. Notebook computers, which usually represent three-quarters of all computer sales (desktops 25%), represent 80% of computer sales this time of year, CNET reports. "This year there should be a 25% increase spread across July and early August," CNET cites NPD Group figures as showing. Still, back-to-school sales should be more modest this year than last because CNET reports that the US marketed is pretty saturated with laptops these days. Check out the article for updates on Apple's rumored Macbook update and the "Netbook" being made by more and more manufacturers on the PC side.

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    Wi-fi in the sky

    Starting next summer, Delta passengers will be able to surf the Web as they fly, the Washington Post reports in "WiFi nearing takeoff." JetBlue and American are close on Delta's heels. On Delta flights, WiFi "will be available for a $9.95 flat fee on flights of three hours or less, and $12.95 on longer flights," according to the Post. Probably won't happen much, but there may be a little extra seat-shuffling for flight attendants if parents find their kids next to people viewing content they feel is inappropriate. But of course DVDs have been on board for some time.

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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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    Videogame for visualizing healing

    A just-published study in the journal Pediatrics involving 375 cancer patients aged 13-29 in the US, Canada, and Australia found that their playing a game called Re-Mission "led to better compliance with their medications and more confidence in fighting the disease," reports. The study's lead author in the Netherlands, Dr. Pamela Kato, told Reuters that the results are important because adherence to treatment is a major problem in that age group. According to redOrbit, Re-Mission, developed by the nonprofit HopeLab in Redwood City, Calif., is about "a microscopic 'nanobot' named Roxxi [who] travels through the bodies of characters with cancer, blasting away cancer cells and bacteria with a firearm of chemotherapy and antibiotics."

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    Mental health care in virtual worlds

    An academic paper out of Italy and the Netherlands describes "immersive e-therapy," a hybrid therapy in clinical psychology that occurs in both virtual-world and physical-world settings. Authors Alessandra Gorini, Andrea Gaggioli, and Cinzia Vigna "suggest that, compared with conventional telehealth applications such as emails, chat, and videoconferences, the interaction between real and 3-D virtual worlds may convey greater feelings of presence, facilitate the clinical communication process, positively influence group processes and cohesiveness in group-based therapies, and foster higher levels of interpersonal trust between therapists and patients." They also look at "challenges related to the potentially addictive nature of such virtual worlds" and "questions related to privacy and personal safety."

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    Tuesday, August 05, 2008

    Social sites: Teen 'confessionals'?

    The focus of Forbes's profile of is how it can monetize this "freewheeling chatfest," I guess after it burns through the $13 million round of venture capital it recently received. But it's the lead of the article that I found arresting: Forbes writer Emily Schmall tells of a 14-year-old MyYearbook user's story of self-mutilation in the site: "Her 1,240-word piece is illustrated by a photo of an arm lined with scars. More than 400 people commented on the piece 24 hours after it was posted July 10." Very rarely do the most popular bloggers on the Web get 400 responses to a post, much less a 1,240-word one. Among other things, then, MyYearbook is a safe and anonymous place for teens to talk about huge, life-affecting secrets. "Confessional" seems too dismissive. [See also "Fictionalizing their profiles."]

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    Monday, August 04, 2008

    P2P online-safety ed program

    By "P2P," I mean by peers, for peers, and I'm referring to the logical idea of teen-communicated online safety ed, not the adult-taught kind - though it starts with young adult trainers. What's even more intelligent about the LEO Project in Syracuse, N.Y., is that it's really leadership training with online citizenship and safety folded in (safety in a holistic sense, involving critical thinking and behavior that protects reputation as well as well-being), the Syracuse Post-Standard reports. "LEO" loosely stands for "The Leadership, Education and Etiquette - On and Offline," and it's a project of Power Unit for Motivating Youth, a Syracuse after-school and mentoring program co-founded by a school district staff member, Akua Goodrich, who told the Post-Standard the program's about developing youth leadership in "the city and the state and the nation and the world" simply because the Internet's not just local. In one four-day class, 26 "ambassadors" who are high school students learn about "cyber safety and social networking issues as well as peer-to-peer marketing and career preparations. They are now developing a Web site [as well as individual blogs] to help educate their peers on the same issues and plan to visit elementary and middle school students this year to pass on Internet safety messages." It seems to me this is the kind of program that gets closer to reaching more at-risk youth (since research shows it's the young most at risk offline who are most at risk online - see "Profile of a teen online victim").

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    'Cloud filtering'

    It does seem to give new meaning to the term "big brother." Zscaler cloud filtering is a filtering service for companies (maybe in future school networks, ISPs, whatever?) that intercepts all traffic coming in from or going out to the Web and "scrubs it" for content (and presumably communication) that violates company policy or is a security risk, the New York Times reports. What sounds more big-brother-ish than usual about it is that, first, it gives network managers "extremely granular controls over how their networks can be used. Detailed restrictions can be set over what kind of sites employees can visit and when they can visit them." For example, social networking could be blocked for one group of users and not another. Second, it monitors the "overall habits" of users on the network, so that subscribers can compare the habits on their networks to those of other corporate Zscaler subscribers.

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