Monday, May 19, 2008

Differentiating Between Jerks And Criminals

Techdirt has a post opposing the federal charges related to the suicide of Megan Meier which takes the position that harassing Megan under a false identity by first working to become her friend and then turning on her was nothing more than being a jerk.

To say that I disagree with this assessment would be an understatement.

The story is, most definitely, sad and tragic -- and it's no surprise that there are people out for vengeance, with the main target being Lori Drew, the adult who participated in some manner in the hoax. However, as we said back when state prosecutors in Missouri couldn't find any law to prosecute, being a total jerk online is not a crime. As stupid as the prank was, it wasn't designed to make the girl commit suicide.

This positioning of someone as merely a jerk is something I see often when people want to stop someone from being held legally accountable for the deliberate and targeted actions they take which cause harm to others.

It is critical to note that this hoax was not stupid as characterized above, it was clever. The hoaxer and those in on the hoax decided not only on a name for the "boy" who would friend Megan, but an entire backstory was created for this "boy." If the stated goal of information gathering used to to create this profile were true then there would have been no sudden turn by this "boy" from someone who liked her to someone who hated her.

Befriending and then attacking someone using a fraudulent identity cannot be done for any purpose other than to inflict emotional pain. That makes it an act of vengeance for the fallout between Megan and Ms. Drew's daughter. But Techdirt overlooks this fact and turns those actions into random jerk behavior.

Not surprisingly, those who want to hold the "jerk" accountable are framed as the "people out for vengeance" and people who "target" someone else. This rhetorical strategy turns those who want accountability into the only people who have crossed an ethical line. Those who want justice for the person harmed become the only people who must be stopped.

Nice trick, but one we cannot fall for.

Many tech people have taken the position that anything goes online and that targeting and harassing others and using false identities to do so are just normal behaviors which say nothing negative about the person or group of people who harasses others. But harassment is harassment. Online communication is only a medium for communication. Ganging up on a 13 year old girl online is no more excusable than ganging up on a 13 year old girl offline.

This framing device is popular with those who refuse to use the label of rapist for a boy who corners his girlfriend and makes it clear that she will be trapped until she gives him the sex he wants. If the girl doesn't try to scratch the boy's eyes out then the boy is a jerk and the girl might feel raped but she choose to give that boy sex. If she feels raped that's a tragedy. If she reports this rape "she is out for vengeance" and has "targeted" this boy.

This framing deliberately and falsely disconnects the boy's action from the girl's decision and turns the girl into the only one who took actions to intentionally harm someone else. Since a boy who uses physical coercion to rape is framed as a non-rapist then those who hold him accountable have -- by this warped logic -- committed the greatest wrong.

Those who use the "jerk" excuse claim to be against the harm done, but their framing directly supports that harm and complete lack of accountability for the harm caused.

A jerk is someone who lets the door slam in your face when you are carrying a heavy box. A jerk is someone who lets a stinky fart rip the second the elevator doors close and then smiles as the others in that elevator car make disgusted faces.

The woman who created a false MySpace profile took actions which cannot accurately be equated to genuine jerk behavior.

What they are doing is deliberately disconnecting cause from effect. Those who intentionally inflict harm on others are excused of all responsibility by labeling the harm their actions caused as a tragedy.

Getting killed by a landslide is a tragedy. Getting swept away in a flood is a tragedy. Being targeted for harassment through fraud is no tragedy. It is malicious injury even if those who inflicted the injury used the Internet as their weapon.

Those who don't acknowledge this cannot be viewed as credible observers.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:55 AM   0 comments links to this post


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