Should Megan Meier’s Tormentors Be Shamed Online?

shame2a.jpgI 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.

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18 Responses

  1. Not important says:

    I guess I’m missing something: why is it “shaming” to report factually on someone’s behavior? Is the idea that these adults — and they were adults — have done something so awful that they merit the protection of anonymity when the media covers the horrendous consequences of their actions?

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    “where some adults created a fake MySpace account to torment a teenage girl”

    From what I’ve read this is not entirely clear. One of the adults claimed to police that unnamed others had gotten control of the account. All that’s clear from the facts I’ve seen is that the adults created the page to spy on their child’s ex-friend — bizarre and disreputable behavior, to be sure, but I think it would be wise to withhold further judgement until more reliable facts are available.

  3. kimberly says:

    It seems pretty clear via the police report dated 11/25/2006 by Lori Drew who admits to:

    “instigating and monitoring a myspace account”

    “(specifically) to gain Megan’s confidence”

    “she typed, read and monitored the communication”

    “felt the incident contributed to Megan’s suicide”

    “recently her neighbors (finding out what she did) became hostile to her” causing her to file a police report to protect her property

    She stated she needed to tell the Meiers to relieve herself of the guilt and responsibility.

    Present day, year later, this woman has not apologized for this despicable behavior let alone no law or legal justice will be holding her accountable. As you can tell from the police report she truly feels she has done nothing deceptive.

    I appreciate the fact that Sarah Wells had enough gumption to state who did this. I don’t wish physical harm to the Drew family but outing this behavior and taking responsibility for it would be a good first step to helping the healing of the Meiers family, who, by the way is being split apart by the repercussions of this “joke”.

    I appreciate that she is getting a great deal of harassment. Maybe she will feel an inkling of what Megan felt—although, it’s not likely.

    The Smoking Gun : http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2007/1120072megan1.html

  4. SHG says:

    I think the point that’s being missed is that when shaming online, there’s no control or limit to the proportionality, duration, scope or impact. There’s no way to defend it, or to put a stop to it when it gets out of control.

    As the story goes, there are some who will merely write critical things about it, and others who will take it way too far, like threatening to firebomb the homes of people who do business with her. No one knows how far this will go or how inappropriately others will react.

    Every offense for which someone is “tried and convicted” on the internet has the potential for the death penalty. Most will control themselves. Some will not. So regardless of whether this person deserves shaming, where does it stop? It is impossible to say, and history shows that no one will ever be able to say “enough”.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The point you are missing, SHG, is that everything you say could be applied equally to object to a little something we call freedom of the press. Oh gosh, who knows what people will do with the information the press reports! Does that mean they shouldn’t report on things?! The logic of your position would seem to mandate that reporting occur only once there is a criminal conviction. Count me in the group that thinks that the public has, uh, a right to know about allegations of criminal behavior. The name became public in this case because of a police report–a public record. And, of course, we already have laws to punish people who do not respect others.

  6. Danny Vice says:

    On Wednesday, October 21st, city officials enacted an ordinance designed to address the public outcry for justice in the Megan Meier tragedy. The six member Board of Aldermen made Internet harassment a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

    Does this new law provide any justice for Megan? Does this law provide equitable relief for a future victim or actually weaken the current law?

    I reject the premise of this new law and believe it completely misses the mark. The reasoning behind this opinion is that city officials have consistently treated this case as an Internet harassment case instead of a child welfare/exploitation case.

    Classifying this case a harassment issue completely fails to address the most serious aspects of the methods Lori Drew employed to lead this youth to her demise. The Vice disagrees that harassment was even a factor in this case until just a couple of days before Megan’s death.

    Considering this case a harassment issue is incorrect because during the 5 weeks Lori Drew baited and groomed her victim, the attention was NOT unwanted attention. It was not harassment at all. It was invited attention. Megan participated in the conversations willingly because she was lured, manipulated and exploited without her knowledge.

    This law willfully sets a precedent that future child exploiters and predators can use to reclassify their cases to harassment issues. In effect, the law enacted to give Megan justice, may make her even more vulnerable. So long as the child victim doesn’t tell the predator to stop, even a harassment charge may not stick with the right circumstances and a good defender.

    Every aspect of this case follows the same procedural requirement used to convict a Child Predator. A child was manipulated by an adult. A child was engaged in sexually explicit conversation (as acknowledged by Lori Drew herself). An adult imposed her will on a child by misleading her, using a profile designed to sexually or intimately attract the 13 year old Megan.

    Lori then utilized the power she had gained over this child to cause significant distress and endangerment to that child. She even stipulated to many of these activities in the police report she filed shortly after Megan’s death.

    We can go on and on here, but the parallels between this case and many other child predator cases that are successfully prosecuted bear striking similarities.

    Child Predator laws do not require much more than simply proving that an adult has engaged a minor in sexually explicit conversation. Lori Drew has already stipulated that her conversations with Megan were sometimes sexual for a child Megan’s age.

    City officials who continue to ignore this viable, documented admission and continue to address this issue as harassment are intentionally burying their heads in the sand, when the solution is staring them right in the face. Why?

    On June 5th, 2006, Governor Matt Blunt signed into law stiff penalties for convicted sex offenders. The Vice believes that officials continually reject a child predator classification of this case in order to keep the penalty of this offense out of this harsher realm.

    Opponents of this law are active in defeating this law not by changing it, but by disqualifying cases like Megan’s from ever being heard.

    There are several other child exploitation laws on the books. To date, none of them have even been considered by City, State and Federal officials in this case. I’m outraged that a motion was never even filed, so that the case could at least be argued before a judge or jury.

    Those satisfied with this response out of Missouri officials need to think through the effect this law will truly have. It quite honestly has the potential to directly undermine Jessica’s law. It quiet easily gives prosecutors a way out of prosecuting child endangerment and child predator cases in the future.

    Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing here.

    Danny Vice

    http://weeklyvice.blogspot.com

  7. Danny Vice says:

    On Wednesday, October 21st, city officials enacted an ordinance designed to address the public outcry for justice in the Megan Meier tragedy. The six member Board of Aldermen made Internet harassment a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

    Does this new law provide any justice for Megan? Does this law provide equitable relief for a future victim or actually weaken the current law?

    I reject the premise of this new law and believe it completely misses the mark. The reasoning behind this opinion is that city officials have consistently treated this case as an Internet harassment case instead of a child welfare/exploitation case.

    Classifying this case a harassment issue completely fails to address the most serious aspects of the methods Lori Drew employed to lead this youth to her demise. The Vice disagrees that harassment was even a factor in this case until just a couple of days before Megan’s death.

    Considering this case a harassment issue is incorrect because during the 5 weeks Lori Drew baited and groomed her victim, the attention was NOT unwanted attention. It was not harassment at all. It was invited attention. Megan participated in the conversations willingly because she was lured, manipulated and exploited without her knowledge.

    This law willfully sets a precedent that future child exploiters and predators can use to reclassify their cases to harassment issues. In effect, the law enacted to give Megan justice, may make her even more vulnerable. So long as the child victim doesn’t tell the predator to stop, even a harassment charge may not stick with the right circumstances and a good defender.

    Every aspect of this case follows the same procedural requirement used to convict a Child Predator. A child was manipulated by an adult. A child was engaged in sexually explicit conversation (as acknowledged by Lori Drew herself). An adult imposed her will on a child by misleading her, using a profile designed to sexually or intimately attract the 13 year old Megan.

    Lori then utilized the power she had gained over this child to cause significant distress and endangerment to that child. She even stipulated to many of these activities in the police report she filed shortly after Megan’s death.

    We can go on and on here, but the parallels between this case and many other child predator cases that are successfully prosecuted bear striking similarities.

    Child Predator laws do not require much more than simply proving that an adult has engaged a minor in sexually explicit conversation. Lori Drew has already stipulated that her conversations with Megan were sometimes sexual for a child Megan’s age.

    City officials who continue to ignore this viable, documented admission and continue to address this issue as harassment are intentionally burying their heads in the sand, when the solution is staring them right in the face. Why?

    On June 5th, 2006, Governor Matt Blunt signed into law stiff penalties for convicted sex offenders. The Vice believes that officials continually reject a child predator classification of this case in order to keep the penalty of this offense out of this harsher realm.

    Opponents of this law are active in defeating this law not by changing it, but by disqualifying cases like Megan’s from ever being heard.

    There are several other child exploitation laws on the books. To date, none of them have even been considered by City, State and Federal officials in this case. I’m outraged that a motion was never even filed, so that the case could at least be argued before a judge or jury.

    Those satisfied with this response out of Missouri officials need to think through the effect this law will truly have. It quite honestly has the potential to directly undermine Jessica’s law. It quiet easily gives prosecutors a way out of prosecuting child endangerment and child predator cases in the future.

    Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing here.

    Danny Vice

    http://weeklyvice.blogspot.com

  8. Anderson says:

    “Proportionality”? If more than one of the Drew family commits suicide, then we can talk disproportion.

  9. nick says:

    Seems a little silly to tell people not to condemn acts they believe are reprehensible.

    The admonition should be, “remember you don’t know all the facts; remember you might be wrong; don’t through bricks through the window; don’t incite violence” etc.

    But broadening that to say “don’t publicly condemn X for doing Y” seems not only pointless but a little dumb.

  10. Doug says:

    Seems to be a great reason to require real names by internet users. Much is said/written under the misperception of anonymity, removing the anonymity might, emphasize might, bring a bit more responsibility.

    Of course, you then place yourself at risk…

  11. P. says:

    47 USC 223, excerpt: “Whoever… utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person… who receives the communications… shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

  12. It looks to me like Danny Vice and P. have both pointed out realistic legal avenues for punishing Lori Drew. Write your local DA.

    I am sympathetic to the argument that online shamers could jump the gun and attack someone without all the facts. I also agree that some readers will react inappropriately, even violently.

    But all of this is an example of norm enforcement. When authorities do not react officially to norm violation, citizens must. They should do so carefully, but some process is needed for making sure people have a sense of what is and is not appropriate. If we stigmatize the manipulation of children by adults, we should not be surprised when manipulators come under scrutiny.

  13. moron says:

    Why has no one noticed this obvious possibility:

    The Drews are not so bad, their daughter is the one who really did it, and her parents are protecting her.

    That would make a lot more sense than anything else.

    If my daughter had done something like that and I found out about it, I would probably try to take the blame too, owing to the ambiguities of the legal situation.

    How would I know my daughter might not end up in reform school or in prison for a thoughtless, immature trick?

    If it were somehow traced to my home, I and/or my spouse would probably try to take the blame, and I think many parents would do likewise.

    I’m not saying I’m certain that’s what happened, but it is certainly possible.

  14. c says:

    the attempt to spread her name and personal information across the Internet is not a productive response.

    Yes, by all means let’s protect the perpetrator. Is there anything more infuriating than the phrase “productive response” here?

    If these ADULTS truly did manipulate the fragile emotions of a young teenage girl, which ended with her suicide, then they should not be allowed to hide under anonymity. I do not advocate vigilante justice, but they are adults and should have to live with their actions in the community. That is what being an adult is, for heavens sake. I for one would want to know who they are so I could avoid them, keep my kids away from them, and boycott their business. Why do I not have that right?

    This cuts right to the heart of what is so wrong with so many things today, Mr. Solove. Your knee-jerk response is to protect the abuser, to allow them to not have to take public responsibility for their harmful and despicable actions. To not have to be seen publicly for who they are. Indeed, your reaction is as disturbing as the story itself. You are so afraid of “shaming,” so afraid of their personal information getting out. For God’s sake, a child is dead. Heaven forbid anyone be held responsible. Heaven forbid anyone be forced to take the consequences.

    You’re so concerned with not ruffling anyone’s feathers that you can’t see the fact that the sky is falling.

  15. Hypatia says:

    Lori Drew is a psychopath. That part is clear.

    But more disturbing than that are the actions of authorities: If it had been an adult MALE that “carried on” in a sexually explicit way with a 13 year old girl, even if it WERE for the purposes of revenge for his teen daughter, he’d be locked up as a pedophile.

    Second, there are al-READY laws on the books that cover this type of harassment. For chrissake: just implement them!

    What is particularly chilling to me, is that Lori Drew knew that the victim was known to be suicidal in the past. That means that her statement to her that the “world would be better off without you” or whatever it was… is even MORE chilling: it means she was TRYING to steer this girl to suicide. It means she had a desire to push it in that direction, and did so.

    Reminds me of Charles Manson. He never “technically” put his own hands upon his victims either, but he “made it happen” by manipulating people, I mean that’s the premise upon which he was convicted: that he had INCITED it.

    Same thing here. Lori Drew incited this suicide and should be just as responsible as Manson was when he incited those murders—and she should also be treated just like any other adult who engages in online relationships of a sexual nature with under-aged children.

  16. adm says:

    Having these people shamed online is perfect justice as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if these people did or did not send the actual messages that seemed to put Megan over the edge. The fact is that they created this account and gave other people access to it and encouraged participation in this sordid game. The other people who participated should be outed and shamed as well.

    No, they should not be threatened with violence or harmed. But one benefit of the internet is that it allows law enforcement to track down the identities of those who make such threats via IP addresses.

    This is one of those situations where the penal code doesn’t provide an appropriate – or any – punishment, so the community steps in to enforce its own sanctions. Is it vigilante? Not when law enforcement has basically washed its hands of the whole matter. The community needs to feel like these people have been punished.

  17. Jaded says:

    “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.”

    If a corporation does something unethical, it deserves to be named and shamed. Why the double standard? If the Drews didn’t want to be known for mentally abusing a child over the internet they’d have found another hobby!