Should Megan Meier’s Tormentors Be Shamed Online?
posted by Daniel Solove
I previously blogged about the Megan Meier case, where some adults created a fake MySpace account to torment a teenage girl (Megan Meier). The adults pretended to be a boy who befriended Megan online and won her affections, only to viciously dump her and hurl insults at her. The incident led to Megan’s suicide.
The newspaper that reported the story opted not to include the names of the adults who engaged in the cyber-bullying of Megan. The journalists concluded that it could spark vigilantism against the adults and their children, and therefore decided not to report their names.
Enter the blogosphere. As Kim Zetter writes in her terrific story at Wired:
Sarah Wells makes an unlikely cyber-vigilante. But the middle-aged mother in Virginia was outraged when she read a Saint Charles Journal article on Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl driven to suicide by relentless online bullying. The fact that the bullying appeared to be instigated by the mother of one of Megan’s friends through a fake MySpace account enraged Wells all the more.
When Wells learned that the woman had filed a police report against the dead girl’s father — who had destroyed the woman’s foosball table in anger and grief — she resolved to take matters into her own hands. The newspaper account didn’t identify the perpetrator of the deadly hoax by name, but included enough detail to track her down through online property-tax records. With a few minutes of sleuthing, Wells identified the woman as [name], of O’Fallon, Missouri. After confirming it with someone in the O’Fallon area who she says was “in a position to know,” she posted the name to her blog.
This is an example of what I refer to as online shaming. In my book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, I argue that while it is tempting to shame people for doing rude and in Megan’s case, despicable acts, online shaming often causes more problems than it solves. I write:
In medieval towns and villages, long before the dawn of police, justice would be carried out by posses. Victims would raise the hue and cry, and posses would hunt down the suspected offender and carry out punishment on the spot (typically execution). We’ve come a long way from those days. But Internet shaming resurrects dimensions of the posse. . . .
Norm enforcers can be mistaken. There are no rules and procedures to ensure that the Internet norm police are accurate in their assessments of who should be deemed blameworthy. An example by the mainstream media illustrates the problems with mistaken attempts to shame. . .
It is tempting to shame, especially when we are convinced that we have seen something blameworthy. But what if we’re wrong? What if we don’t know the whole story? We have developed procedures in the law to protect against such errors. No such procedures exist in the world of shaming. . . .
[A]lthough shaming is done to further social order, it paradoxically can have the opposite result. Instead of enhancing social control and order, Internet shaming often careens out of control. It targets people without careful consideration of all the facts and punishes them for their supposed infractions without proportionality. Shaming becomes uncivil, moblike, and potentially subversive of the very social order that it tries to protect.
As Kim Zetter’s article continues, it confirms some of the problems I’ve identified with online shaming:
Wells published only [the cyber-bully's] name, but her readers and other bloggers followed by finding and posting her husband’s name, the family’s address and phone number, a cellphone number, the name of the family’s advertising company, and the names and phone numbers of clients with whom they worked.
As Megan’s story raced across the internet and was picked up by national media, more people joined in the cause, including Wired News readers. . . .
In retaliation, readers called [the cyber-bully's] advertising clients to urge them to withdraw their business from her. But it wasn’t long before there were death threats, a brick through a window and calls to set the [the cyber-bully's] house on fire. Police have reportedly increased patrols to guard the family against attack. A peaceful protest is scheduled to occur on the family’s street this weekend.
I’m quoted a few times in Zetter’s article noting that despite the heinousness of the cyber-bully’s conduct, the attempt to spread her name and personal information across the Internet is not a productive response.
The article concludes:
Wells herself felt the capricious hand of internet justice on Tuesday, when another blogger condemned her as a “vigilante” and posted her address and phone number online.