It’s not news to anyone that the Internet amplifies the notoriety and celebrity of our actions. What might have been an inconsequential deed or an embarrassing but little known fact about ourselves in the past, can today, in just few hours, become a worldwide phenomenon. Or at the very least a piece of highly traded gossip in a broader circle.
The consequences of this visibility can be positive, fun, and even highly profitable (see the bank account of the family behind the “Charlie bit my finger” YouTube video). We also know the consequences can be devastating, for the victims or the perpetrators. Victims may also be rewarded disproportionately when compared to the actual incident because of the now much wider audience.
Is the Internet turning us into a cyber version of the angry mob calling for someone to hang? Equally, do we now give the underserving more than they deserve? There are numerous examples of incidents of bullying online. You can probably think of a couple immediately. Here are a couple well-known cases.
Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student, said goodbye in a Facebook post and jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2010. He had been the victim of cyber bullying by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, who used a webcam to spy on Tyler with a man and posted it online. Dharun used the Internet as a weapon to humiliate and torment Tyler.
The district attorney charged Dharun Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, on 15 counts relating to Tyler’s death, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. Molly cooperated with the authorities, served 300 hours of community service, and had to take cyber-bullying counseling. Ravi was convicted and served 20 days of a 30-day sentence. He was also sentenced to three years’ probation, 300 hours of community service, and cyber-bullying and alternative lifestyle counseling.
68-year-old Karen Klein, a middle school bus monitor, had her life forever changed when a video of students tormenting her went viral. The students called her names and made vicious comments about her weight for over 10 minutes, at one point causing Karen to cry. There was an outpouring from people who became emotionally involved. A fund was set up to send her on the vacation of a lifetime, which in a week turned into a half a million dollars. She could not only take a vacation she could retire.
Many people felt unrelenting anger toward her 13-year-old tormenters. Soon after the story broke the names of the boys and their parents were all over the Web. The families started receiving death threats and vicious text messages by the hundreds. One family was afraid to leave their house.
Warning: this video contains explicit and graphic language.
Casey had been terrorized by bullies his entire life. He’d had to endure endless verbal and physical abuse from his classmates. In high school his closest friends abandoned him. The degradation and shame he experienced led him to contemplate suicide, but because he loved his family, he chose to press on, and try to ignore his oppressors. A person can take only so much before they break down. Casey proved this by deciding to put an end to his persecution.
Casey became an overnight hero. People reacted as if someone had finally stood up to bullies. People call him “Little Zangeif” after a street fighter video game, he became the face of the campaign against bullying and did many television interviews. His father said that because of the video Casey went from having one friend to having over 100,000.
In all of these cases, once incident reached millions of people because of a video posted online and changed multiple people’s lives forever. The videos also caused strong reactions in viewers and sparked conversation.
The online world is a wonderful place for the free flowing of ideas. It can be an exceptional tool to inspire others to help the less fortunate or ruin the lives of innocent people by spreading false or private information about them without the fear of penalty or punishment. Five or 10 minutes is all it takes to become an Internet celebrity, when 10 years ago, these stories would never have been heard.
The Internet has resulted in a small number of people receiving disproportionate benefits or reprisals that previously wouldn’t have occurred. People are bullied every day, but not everyone receives $500,000. Bullies are not nice people, but do they deserve to be abused and threatened by thousands of strangers? Then again, is 20 days in prison punishment enough for driving a young man to suicide?
Impossible questions to answer. But perhaps we should at least be talking about and teaching our young people to not only think before they publish, but to also think about what’s the appropriate way to respond to someone else’s Internet misdeed.