Social Media

Cyberstalking of free speech

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

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.”

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