Untouchable Cyberbullies

On campus and in Congress, the quest to stop rude online attacks on students may be easier said than done.

November 29, 2010

one in which a user wrote: “Contrary to popular belief, Tyler Clementi did not jump off of the George Washington Bridge. The gay, autistic, ginger Aspie actually had HIV and became coinfected with gingivitis." (The thread continues in even cruder terms.)

As the auto-reply message from CollegeACB’s e-mail account will tell you, the site considers itself exempt from legal responsibility for what its users post under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. (An e-mail from Inside Higher Ed requesting comment from the site’s president, Peter Frank, was not otherwise returned.) A press release linked on the site’s front page heralds CollegeACB as a place where students can “converse openly, without fear of reprisal or reprimand.” The website, it continues, “helps build community and engenders the open exchange of information,” and “is devoted to promoting actual discussion, not provoking salacious posts or personal attacks.”

CollegeACB does allow students to report offending posts. According to a memo posted to CollegeACB's administrative blog in May, outlining the site's removal policy, a post will be removed automatically if it is reported enough times. Otherwise, it is up to the administrator, who reviews the requests and makes a call within a few days. But even if an abusive post ends up coming down, says Brokman, it might have already done its damage to a student’s feelings or reputation. “It’s such a well-known medium that you could go to a party [later that day] and someone could be talking about it,” he said.

The other option — suing the site for records that might lead to the unmasking of the offending users — might seem even less attractive. In 2007, two Yale Law School students sued an administrator and a bevy of anonymous users of the law school comment board after being named in defamatory posts. The plaintiffs eventually dropped the suit against the administrator, Anthony Ciolli (who, a year later, wrote a paper calling for Congress to add a provision to the Communications Decency Act that would exempt “Internet intermediaries” from paying attorney’s fees in such cases). But they did successfully unmask a handful of the assailants, who settled with the women out of court.

Emily Bazelon, a fellow at the Yale Law School who has written about several high-profile bullying cases for, where she is a senior editor, says that while that case demonstrated that it is possible to bring anonymous Internet trolls to account for their posts, the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal case might seem like more trouble than it is worth. “The site won’t be liable, and the person you’re suing might well not have any money,” Bazelon told Inside Higher Ed. “So you’re basically going to be waging your own war on behalf of your reputation, and you will probably bear the financial costs yourself.”

Tracy Mitrano, the director of I.T. policy at Cornell (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed), says that if Congress is interested in stemming the sort of bullying that is unique to the new media landscape, it should be focusing not on creating new, substantive laws that reiterate the application of existing anti-bias laws to electronic media — as the Clementi bill does — but rather on revising procedural law to make it easier to unmask those who perpetrate those crimes anonymously on the Internet. In the meantime, a boycott might be the most effective way to try to undermine the site, since it runs on revenue from its advertisers, and reducing traffic on the site would reduce the amount CollegeACB is able to charge for advertisements, says Mitrano, who recommended this strategy to the student assembly. (JuicyCampus, an earlier gossip site, closed, reportedly due to declining advertising revenue, in early 2009. Its administrators blamed the recession.)

The limited effects of enacting such a strategy on a single campus are obvious, says Brokman, but the student assembly thought it worthwhile to remind the campus that CollegeACB runs counter to the university's social ideals. And yet the social realities of the college campus are perhaps more daunting than the website or the laws that protect it. Gossip sites, it seems, are irresistible. If nothing else, CollegeACB has proven that even if JuicyCampus died, the market for it did not. "If we were to shut down right now, there would be countless replacements up and popular within weeks, if not days," wrote the site's administrator in his memo in May. "We already have competitors who tout that they will never remove posts, no matter how libelous. The concept of the ACB has existed long before my involvement with the website."

To wit, there have been dozens of new posts to the Cornell board since the assembly passed the measure. “We could say a lot of things,” Brokman says, “but I think it will be hard for people to ignore their impulses to go on and see what’s being said.”

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