Cyber Vigilantes: Do-It-Yourself Justice Online In October, a 13-year-old, Missouri girl committed suicide after she was bullied online by a neighborhood mother. It didn't take long for web users to post the name, address and phone number of the woman who was behind the harassment. Guests discuss vigilante-style justice in the digital age.
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Cyber Vigilantes: Do-It-Yourself Justice Online

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The Internet makes it easy to locate names, addresses and information. With a simple Google search, you can find out where someone lives, and with another click you can see a satellite picture of their house. Criminal records are available online as are detailed list of campaign contributions. It's harder and harder to keep a secret these days, and harder, still, to stay anonymous. People can find out what newspapers won't publish, sometimes what district attorneys won't release. And more and more, lately, some of these Web surfers become online vigilantes - people who post information they think the public should know.

We're going to hear two stories today about outraged curiosity, privacy and public shaming. Best known is the story of Megan Meier, a teenage girl from Missouri who took her own life when her online boyfriend broke up with her. Later, it came to light that her boyfriend was really the mother of one of Megan's friends.

Have you ever publicized the name or address of someone on your blog or your Web site to shame them? Are you an online vigilante? Or have you been the target of one? 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program: "Gastroanomalies," a new book about favorite and maybe not so favorite food from the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Aspic, anyone?

But first: online vigilantes. We'll start with the Megan Meier case. For those of you who haven't been following the story, here's a quick summary. When a cute boy named Josh Evans befriended 13-year-old Megan Meier on the social networking site MySpace, she was excited. Megan, who suffered from depression and low self-esteem, corresponded with Josh for more than a month before he abruptly ended their friendship. Josh told her he had heard that she was mean to her friends and insulted her.

Six weeks after Megan killed herself, the Meier family learned that Josh Evans never existed. Another neighborhood mom with a daughter who was friends with Megan created a fictitious profile in order to gain Megan's trust to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter. The newspaper that broke this story decided not to name the mother responsible for the hoax. Sarah Wells, a blogger who in Virginia was outraged, though. And with a little work on her computer, she uncovered the name and posted it on her blog. Sarah Wells joins us now from the studios of member station WCVE in Richmond, Virginia.

And it's nice having you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. SARAH WELLS (Blogger): How do you do? Good Afternoon.

CONAN: And why did you decide to identify the culprit here?

Ms. WELLS: Long story short, I felt like it was a public concern. The newspaper that had published the story all but revealed her name. I mean, it was sort of a big wink. They gave out quite a bit of identifying detail. And I have to say I did struggle with the decision to put her name, her common name, and only her name on my blog. But it was really just to put out my two cents about what I thought of what she did.

It's - my involvement is - it's sort of accidental that I was first. Other people had the information. If I did anything different, it was to contact someone in a position to know that it was really her. And I actually did hear portions of the police report read to me, and she made some very astonishing admissions in that report. And I don't see the benefit of withholding that information from people. I think it was a matter of public concern.

CONAN: From what you say, it wasn't really hard to find out who she was.

Ms. WELLS: Not - an ordinary application of Google-foo is what I called it when I was talking to people I talk to online.

CONAN: And as you say, you may have been the first to post her name, but you certainly weren't the only person to post her name.

Ms. WELLS: I think a neighbor did. I think it was just like coincidence that my post got picked up before his did. People thought she should be known.

CONAN: And that has had consequences. People - not you - but other people on the Web subsequently put on her address, her phone number, her cell phone number, a lot of information about her.

Ms. WELLS: Actually, by the time I woke up the next morning, after posting her name, it was not all over my blog. It was from here to eternity, infinity and beyond, every Web site that had picked up on the story.

CONAN: And the story was like wildfire. It was picked up everywhere.

Ms. WELLS: But I have to point out that this is like white-pages information. This is something that anyone could find - anyone. If it appears on a blog, it's taking way one step, but it's really available to anyone who wants it.

CONAN: And subsequently, there have been death threats. There have been a brick thrown through the window. This has had an effect.

Ms. WELLS: That's not subsequent. That's not subsequent. That actually happened in the year between Megan's death and the time the story was revealed. As far as vigilantism or violence, retribution for what she did, breaches of the peace have been a problem in that neighborhood. And that's one of the reasons the story has gotten so much outrage going, because…

CONAN: Well, it sounds like you're outraged. It's outrageous. Let's see if we can get a…

Ms. WELLS: It is difficult for me to speak and be completely calm, when people tell me that my blog incited this to happen. It's sort of like the lack of a remedy, the - and the perverse use of the courts against the victims of this person have resulted in breaches of the peace. And that's why, knowing who she is and having something done about it in a formal way, a way that society condones in the courts or even just shunning…

CONAN: Megan's father…

Ms. WELLS: …is good.

CONAN: I should just clarify. Megan's father was charged - in connection with -when he was outraged and angry, driving a truck across somebody's lawn, a thousand dollars worth of damage, something like that.

Ms. WELLS: That's one of the incidents. And that is one that was - one of the reasons I decided to go ahead and put her name on my blog was I knew that in a couple of days, the story - her name would come out within a couple of days, to be sure, by somebody besides me. But in a couple of days, he was going to court on a hearing in regards to that matter. And I think, you know, a little public pressure on her to ask the prosecutor to nol-pros the charges or to drop them altogether would have been a good thing.

CONAN: Our number, if you'd like to join our conversation, is 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And Mark(ph) is on the line. Mark is calling us from Sacramento in California.

MARK (Caller): Hello:

CONAN: Hi, Mark.

MARK: Hi. I just had a question for your guest. That I was just concerned with the health of the woman's name that you put out. I mean, it kind of really disregard her and her wellbeing when you make available that amount of information for her. And if a major newspaper doesn't put the name out, it's usually for that person's protection, even if they have committed a crime, because human, you know, human nature when someone has done something - an atrocity like that - is to seek, like, retribution for what they've done. And I was just wondering if you had any concern for the woman when you did that?

CONAN: Was that one of the things that you struggled with, Sarah Wells?

Ms. WELLS: If I've struggled with that, it would be more towards her family members and people who knew her. I think that protection of the wider community matters. And what's the public benefit of concealing the names of bad actors?

CONAN: She broke no law.

Ms. WELLS: Well, maybe she did. That's not for me to decide. But she did do something awful and admitted it to herself in a police report that she instigated. She called the police after banging on the door three times, after being asked to leave. She decided she hadn't been received properly. She hadn't been allowed to give her side of the story. And so she called the police, and she told them everything she did. And she asked the police to make that family listen to her.

CONAN: Mark, are you…

Ms. WELLS: And…

CONAN: Have you been following…

Ms. WELLS: It's a public record.

CONAN: Yeah. I understand. Mark, have you been following the story?

MARK: I heard about it very briefly. I haven't read the full news article about it.

CONAN: Okay.

MARK: And so it was just kind of shocking that if in our judicial system, if the person hasn't committed any crime, whether right or wrong, if - when you put that amount of public information out about that person, if you're kind of asking for that vigilante sort of justice to be done for that person.

CONAN: Well, again, Sarah Wells only posted the name. Other people posted the additional information. But Sarah Wells, did you think that you were, in any way, calling for people to, well, other than shaming the person, maybe ostracizing the person. But were you thinking you were calling for people to any way punish her?

Ms. WELLS: Punish her in any illegal way?

CONAN: Yeah. I mean, any violent way or any inappropriate way.

Ms. WELLS: Absolutely not, absolutely rejected it. In fact, I discussed in other postings my objection to that and how I think having this proceed in a civil way is very important. It's what matters the most. Breaches of the peace result when you don't deal with things in a civil way.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

MARK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Sarah Wells, I have to ask you, again, subsequent to all of this dustup, your name and information has now been posted…

Ms. WELLS: Uh-huh.

CONAN: …on the Web. And some people might say, well, turnabout is fair play.

Ms. WELLS: Well, they might. And - well, it's not like the person who posted my information has unmasked Batman.

CONAN: No. I don't think so.

Ms. WELLS: My name was actually in the sidebar. Where I live, the city I live, the state I live was right there. And all the information about me and in my blog posts would tell anyone who I am. Anyone who wants that information could get it. It's all public. And I'm not really - I don't really have any strong objection to it being made more public. It - you know, if the person has published some defamatory statements about me, and I think she's probably gotten close to that line, if not crossed it, that's a completely different issue…

CONAN: Of course.

Ms. WELLS: …as far as, like, Sarah Wells lives here and here's her telephone number. Well, you can get that.

CONAN: You didn't feel more exposed by that information being on the Web.

Ms. WELLS: Momentarily, I confess, I did feel a little exposed. But then, I realized it's really not like she unmasked Batman.

CONAN: Well, we'll let…

Ms. WELLS: Here I am.

CONAN: We'll let you get back to the bat cave.

Ms. WELLS: Okay.

CONAN: Sarah Wells is a blogger who lives in Virginia. She uncovered and posted the name of Lori Drew, the mother who posed as Josh Evans and communicated with Megan Meier. Sarah Wells, with us today from the studios of WCVE in Richmond, Virginia, thanks very much for your time.

Ms. WELLS: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll talk more about cyber vigilantes and this idea of public shaming on the Web in just a moment. How this affects decisions in the mainstream media and your calls: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A little bit later in the hour, we'll get to the topic of gastroanomalies and look back at some of the questionable culinary creations from America's mid-century kitchens. Right now, our focus is on cyber vigilantes and public shaming. We just spoke with Sarah Wells, a blogger who named Megan Meier's neighbor on her blog.

We got these e-mails. So this woman harasses someone, writes Emily(ph), and now people harass her. What about the rule of law? Isn't this mob justice? Even if someone commits a crime, committing a crime against that person is illegal. People should know that retribution in kind is illegal in this country.

And then this e-mail from Duncan(ph). I fully support what your guest has done. We've become a nation of people who refuse to take responsibility for our actions. I think it's wonderful that someone held that parent's feet to the fire for a stupid and thoughtless act.

Well, joining us now is Daniel Solove, an assistant - an associate professor at the George Washington University Law School. And he's with us from a studio there. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor DANIEL SOLOVE (Law, George Washington University; Author, "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet"): Hi, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And Daniel Solove is the author of "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet." And is this a case of cyber vigilantism?

Prof. SOLOVE: I think it is a bit of cyber vigilantism. I think that one of the problems here is that exposing this information, and particularly a whole bunch of bloggers getting together to put out more bits of information about them, does expose them to potential threats and to potential retaliation.

Now, it might not be the blogger's intent to do this. But information spreads incredibly rapidly on the Internet. And people often experience great outrage and express great outrage when reading about a case where the facts are so compelling and the acts are so despicable as this.

And in a lot of instances, these can spill over into effects in real space, into to actual acts of vigilantism, actual threats and harassment to the individuals. And I think that can be somewhat problematic when and if that happens.

CONAN: But that initial piece of information - and again, it was just a name -and then these other bloggers add onto it and onto it and onto it, and that's where gets the aspect almost of being a mob.

Prof. SOLOVE: Exactly. It's a kind of snowballing effect. A lot of the cases that I write about in my book involve actually much more minor transgressions than the one here. One involves a woman in South Korea who was on a subway and didn't clean up after her dog, a small dog, that pooped on the train. And people created a vast campaign against her, resulting in her being harassed and having to drop out of school with all sorts of negative effects. And it's the collective that ultimately - the collective effect of many people posting information and piling on that creates this effect.

CONAN: And you call it Internet shaming.

Prof. SOLOVE: Exactly. Because a lot of it is for either crimes, but sometimes, it's for just routine norm violations. There are entire Web sites that are devoted to shaming, Web sites for people who leave bad tips, Web sites for people who cheat on their boyfriends and girlfriends, and various other sites designed to shame people.

CONAN: Some cities started this by posting the name of Johns, people arrested for soliciting prostitution, posting their names on the Web.

Prof. SOLOVE: Exactly. Sometimes, the governments get into the action. In one case, a university posted pictures of students who were allegedly smoking pot in a field or a park at the school, asking for people to identify the names of the students in the photographs. So we're seeing not just individual bloggers but sometimes governments, sometimes institutions that are engaging in this practice.

CONAN: If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org.

Pete's(ph) on the line with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

PETE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

PETE: Listening to your story here and in other programs, you guys, what's going on in the Internet and this bullying and things like that - I'm a father of 3-year-old and 1-year-old. I'll be scared that they'll be growing up in this free information type of world where you're exposed like that. Honestly, it scares the living bejeez(ph) out of me. What can we do to protect ourselves and more importantly our children or insulate them? What are the measures we can do to kind of just, you know, build a wall so to speak?

CONAN: Any ideas, Daniel Solove?

Prof. SOLOVE: Well, I think the first step is awareness. And right now, the rise of blogs and social network Web sites has been relatively new. It's only about, you know, three to four years where these types of technologies have been very popular. And I do think we're witnessing the current generations growing up are going to have a ton of their personal information about them online, from childhood through adulthood. And the things that occur in high school and college and even middle school - the bullying, the gossip, the rumors - all of that is now no longer going to be just orally communicated and forgotten in a short amount time, but it's going to be online and permanent.

And I think the first step is just being aware of that fact, and that when you post online, you need to be responsible and teaching kids how to do this responsibly. I think then the next step beyond understanding what's going on and understanding the consequences of it is having the law try to help shape some of the norms of the blogosphere and of social network Web sites toward being more responsible as to what people post about each other, to how people behave in these settings, because right now, it's a kind of free-for-all.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we've got from Tony(ph) in California. My stepdaughter wrote horrible things about me on her MySpace page every time we had a fight. It broke my heart to read them. The worst part was that this is public and for all the world to see. Luckily, I reminded myself that she is a child.

So this comes from both sides. Pete, we wish you and your kids the best of luck with this.

PETE: thank you. Take all the help we can get.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Cyber vigilantes often take up their cause when the mainstream media won't identify a person. A couple of weeks ago in Albany, New York, John Sweeney, the former congressman, was arrested for drunk driving. A young woman in her 20s was in the car with Sweeney at the time.

Rex Smith, the editor of the Albany Times Union decided not to identify that young woman in his newspaper, even though he and several members of the staff found out who she was. In a follow-up piece he wrote, he suggested to readers who wanted to know her identity: Knock yourselves out on Google, folks.

Rex Smith joins us now from his office in Albany, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. REX SMITH (Editor, The Albany Times Union): Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here. I do somewhat regret that smart aleck remark in my column, but we'll let it stand for now.

CONAN: Well, you wrote it.

Mr. SMITH: I did.

CONAN: Why did you decide not to publish the name of this woman who was in the car of the congressman, even an ex-congressman? Fair game, I think, everybody would say.

Mr. SMITH: Yes. And I think that's true. And I think it goes to something that Professor Solove was just saying about social norms eventually shaping the conversation. There have been certain norms that had developed in journalism over the years, the centuries of its practice in the United States. And one of those is some concern for the privacy, for the rights of individuals who are private people rather than public people.

The young woman in question is not a public figure. She is someone who apparently just had the misfortune of hopping into a car with a drunk ex-congressman that we didn't think that there was a reason for citizens to need to know her name. We didn't think there was a value to the community of her name being known. And that's one of the things that differentiate journalism, as it's practiced in this country, from simple conversation.

We are not simply clerks of the facts. We're not a file cabinet from which stuff goes in and just comes right out. We do make judgments, and I thought, as an editor, that the appropriate judgment in this case was to limit the public information in this case because it just didn't seem to have a value to me.

CONAN: Though it's clear, you had a discussion about this, debate about it in the newsroom.

Mr. SMITH: We had - yes, we did. We had a conversation. It - we had - frankly, we reached the conclusion pretty easily though. Four of the senior editors, actually, just had a sort of brief conversation in my office, and I actually did look up, as a matter of fact, the code of ethics of the Society Professional Journalists, where there is a phrase that says recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.

So I thought that in this case, she was that kind of a person. And, of course, I know that in the modern age, people can get information on their own that we, in the media, would previously have been the sole gatekeepers of. That's the way of the world now. But as long as we still have mainstream media, as long as I'm still charged with setting the standards that this newspaper adheres to, I think we need to observe some of those standards, and one of those is that we'll give some concern to the privacy interest of individuals.

CONAN: Would the ease of finding the name of this person, would that be a factor at all in this? Because, again, somebody up there who's interested could find the name and put it on a blog.

Mr. SMITH: They might be able to. I don't know that it would be all that easy because the police were not releasing the documents in question. I do think that sometimes if something is easy to get, then it does affect your judgment. And I don't think there are blanket judgments as you can make about these things. That's why we still have human beings as editors instead of computers.

And I think that these, by the way, are evolving standards and that editors, people in my position, are going to be changing the way they view this, even as we look at them now differently than we did a few years ago.

And certainly, it's different in different products. I was just having a conversation this morning with a professor in our community who is upset by something that someone wrote about him in a blog that is hosted by our Web site timesunion.com. And it's a citizen blog that our Web site hosts and he thought that I should have taken down the comment.

Well, that's not the way the blogosphere works. It's not something that I would publish in the Times Union, but it is something that lives on the Web site timesunion.com in the citizen blog. And so we're just grappling with all of these new and varying standards depending upon the medium.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Mr. SMITH: Absolutely.

CONAN: Rex Smith is the editor of the Albany Times Union in Albany, New York, where he joined us by phone. His paper decided not to publish the identity of a young woman who was in the car with a former congressman, when he was arrested for drunk driving a couple of weeks ago.

And Rex Smith, we appreciate your time.

Let's see if we can get another on the line. And this is Charles(ph) and Charles is with us from Muncie, Indiana.

CHARLES (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hey, Charlie, go ahead.

CHARLES: I am involved in a sort of online activism, tracking and identifying white supremacists and neo-Nazi leaders and organizers and recruiters. The Internet is their primary recruiting source, and a lot of times what it really takes is just identifying these people.

There's a trend in the neo-Nazi and white supremacists movements today to, you know, wear suit and ties and look like outstanding citizens that they're, you know, that they value freedom and are just trying to protect white America, when the truth is many of them openly advocate violence against peaceful people.

And they'll never tell you that themselves, you know, at least in a public forum, and I think it's up to us to get the word out to what their real agenda is.

CONAN: And how sure do you have to be that you've got the right person?

CHARLES: That's a fine line, and it's a tricky thing. As far as actually identifying someone's name or putting someone's address or phone number out there, which people I'm affiliated with have done, we take great steps, even to the point of visually verifying the person, their home or their telephone number.

There was a white supremacist earlier this year who made some headlines by calling for the assassination of columnist Leonard Pitts, and he's the same guy that published the home addresses and phone numbers of the Jena Six and actually called for people to go down there and kill them.

And so it thought, you know, the publicizing of his name and address and phone number, while not advocating violence against him was fair play.

CONAN: Okay. Charlie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

CHARLES: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about cyber vigilantes today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Daniel Solove, I wonder, so somebody trying to identify publicly and, I guess, shame neo-Nazis. Is that appropriate?

Prof. SOLOVE: Well, I get very concerned when it comes to this because one clause that we might agree with, such as that one, could just as easily be a clause that we don't agree with. Many years back, there was a site called the Nuremberg Files, which publicized the names and addresses and other identifying information of abortion doctors.

And then, it would have doctors who had been wounded, shaded in gray, and doctors who had been killed with a line across their names. And this was used by people who wanted to do violence against these individuals.

So what someone thinks is right, another person thinks is wrong. And if this is the way things are enforced in this kind of vigilante mob justice kind of way, with every individual making decisions for themselves about what is worthy of condemnation and what isn't, then we have to accept that even for the things that we might agree with, such as we might, you know, not like certain things versus things that we might want to protect. But someone else could have a very different idea. And, I think, that once we go down this road, things can readily spiral out of control, even for instances of shaming where people deserve to be shamed in some way.

It's, in a lot of cases, the people who behave badly do deserve to be shamed. But I think there are certain qualities of online shaming that can get fairly dangerous. The information spreads very rapidly. People pile on more rapidly. It's very easy for a mob mentality to break out, where each person tries to outdo each other.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in now. This is Brandon(ph). Brandon's with us from Visalia in California. Visalia, is that it?

BRANDON (Caller): Visalia it is. Thank you for bringing light to this issue. It's a very important one, especially one that touches close to myself. My wife and I had been following very close to the case that's been going on with this young lady, and I feel very bad for her family. I was involved with a similar issue and by the grace of God, I actually survived.

An ex-girlfriend of mine, several years ago, started an online harassment and public harassment in the area that I lived and that - with other situations that's going on with my life led up to my suicide and was dead for a period of five to ten minutes, they said, and was resuscitated. I was in a coma for a period of time.

And it's taken a lot of, oh, I guess, spiritual searching and self-searching to be able to kind of find myself and bring about who I've become now. And through medication and therapy and whatnot, I've been able to have a normal life, but it's very sad for me to be able to hear things like this of this young girl that unfortunately wasn't able to (unintelligible). I feel very bad for her family.

CONAN: Of course, Brandon, we're glad you made it.

BRANDON: Thank you, sir. I do appreciate you bringing light to this issue, and I do feel that awareness is very important. The signs of depression are widespread that there are certain aspects that I think is different, as far as suicidal ideation, and thoughts and whatnot. And therapy is very important…

CONAN: We'll talk about depression and anxiety and therapy about another time, but we want to end on a note about cyber vigilantes. Thanks very much for the call, Brandon.

BRANDON: Thank you, sir. You have a good day.

CONAN: You too. And again, take care of yourself. And, Daniel Solove, thank you so much for your time today.

Prof. SOLOVE: Well, thank so much for having me.

CONAN: Daniel Solove's book is "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet." He's an associate professor at GWU Law School.

Coming up, we're going to be talking some of the more ghastly dishes from the 1950s. You remember any? Aspic?

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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