Cyberbullying Goes to College
Online harassment can turn campus life into a virtual hell
In summer 2007, a music professor at BU was shocked to learn that he had a Facebook page — in his name, with a recent photo and a spot-on bio. But, the professor recalls, “embedded in the document were really scurrilous things that were reputed to have been said by me, and they were quite unpleasant and ugly and immature.”
The remarks provoked a steady stream of online rants and insults. The professor, who asked BU Today not to publish his name, had no idea how long the page had been up or what to do about it. He suspected a disgruntled former student — there had been a few over the years — but had no clue which one.
After many phone calls and sleepless nights, with the help of a friend’s daughter who knew someone at Facebook, the professor persuaded site administrators to remove the page. “It was incredibly anxiety-producing,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how long this would go on. You’re forced into the fairly lonely situation of going to see an attorney and facing the prospect of some kind of litigation.”
Welcome to Cyberbullying 2.0, the adult version of the meanest pastime on MySpace and Facebook. In recent years, the dangerous game has grown up and grown calculated.
Its consequences now include adult-sized miseries — dashed career opportunities, ruined professional relationships, crippling anxiety, even thoughts of suicide.
Bullying in cyberspace stops far short of using Internet access to make contact with potential victims, as the police allege was done by second-year BU medical student Philip Markoff, now charged with murder. But it remains an ugly and growing phenomenon, which some argue could be a harbinger of brutality and crime in the “real” world.
In 2007, a Yale Law School student was the target of sexually violent rants, among other attacks, in the comments section of AutoAdmit, an online college admissions discussion board. She became the second person to sue the Web site for IP addresses, real names, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages when she joined the lawsuit of another female law student at Yale. That same year, a single mother from Colorado was smeared for two months by her ex-boyfriend in the Rants and Raves section of craigslist. Last fall, 40-year-old Korean movie star Choi Jin-sil killed herself, apparently devastated over malicious Internet rumors and online harassment related to her divorce and finances.
While research into cyberabuse among young teens has exploded, authoritative studies of adult online malfeasance are hard to find. Grown victims are embarrassed to come forward. Some are still working with, or for, their bullies, and fear talking to authorities or reporters. One Web site, Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), created in 1998, reports an average of 100 requests for help a week from people 18 and older. In 2007, its latest reporting year, the site documented 249 cases of online harassment, with white females between the ages of 18 and 30 making up more than 60 percent of the victims.
“Anytime you have disembodied aggression like cyberbullying, it’s likely to be more severe,” says Gary Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), an online nonprofit started in 1998. “There’s a whole body of old social psychological research showing that impersonal contact desensitizes people to aggression.”
Disembodied aggressors are not only likely to be more severe, they are harder to identify. The online tormentor of a college professor could be a bitter former student who graduated years ago or the neatly dressed sophomore in the third row who crashed and burned on a recent midterm.
At BU, one faculty member who asked not to be identified claims that a colleague defamed her on the site Rate My Professors (RMP). Another, who also prefers to remain anonymous, complains that a student accused him of showing up for class high. And another reports finding veiled comments suggesting that he might be sexually harassing students.
Some who find themselves in the virtual crosshairs seek help at the Faculty and Staff Assistance Office (FSAO), a free and confidential counseling resource. Associate director Thierry Guedj (GRS’01) declines to provide numbers, but says over the past five years, online harassment cases have been spiking, in particular through Rate My Professors.
“It really hurts faculty members badly when they read these things about themselves online,” says Guedj, a Metropolitan College adjunct assistant professor of psychology. “People have become quite depressed about it.”
Ben Bierman, a College of Fine Arts lecturer, says he was flamed by a former graduate student he caught plagiarizing when he taught at Brooklyn College. It started with belligerent e-mails and then morphed into a nasty two-year campaign on RMP. “I’ve stopped looking,” Bierman says. “It just caused so much stress. But one of the problems is that it’s one of the first things that pops up on a Google search for me. I’ve worked hard my whole life in developing a positive public profile. There’s no recourse.”
Rate My Professors, the online host of Bierman’s nemesis, now boasts more than eight million student-generated ratings of more than a million professors at 6,000 schools. Founded in 1999, the site allows students to anonymously rate their professors in several categories and comment on such traits as humor and classroom style, not to mention the tightness of their sweaters and the flattering cut of their jeans (look for the chili pepper symbols).
RMP guidelines prohibit threats, violence, intimidation, hate, and other abusive posts, as well as impersonation. The site also offers a video rebuttal system, although faculty complain that it’s a slow and labor-intensive way to combat comments that spring to life — and into search engines — with the speed of electrons. Random samples are also collected, and the site has a flagging system, which allows users to alert visitors to credibility issues.
The new bathroom wall
While online aggression among youth tends to peak in high school, according to cyberbullying experts, there is increasing spillover among college students. With Facebook groups, pilfered passwords, uploaded drunken party pics, and naked photos of an ex, the means to torment and humiliate are seemingly endless. A 2004 study of online harassment at the University of New Hampshire, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found that one in 10 students reported cyberabuse by an acquaintance, a stranger, or a significant other. “Students may be especially vulnerable to stalking and cyberstalking because they live in a relatively closed community where class schedules, phones, and e-mails are easy to find,” the study’s author writes. “Most college students (18 to 29) are in the age group that fits the stalking victim profile.”
And that was before the birth of Juicy Campus, a site that posted anonymous gossip by anyone and about anyone from more than 500 college campuses — the new wall of the bathroom stall, but open to the world. The site closed in February after a year-and-a-half of very controversial life. CEO Matt Ivester, a Duke University grad, says he shuttered his doors for economic reasons, but Juicy Campus had come under legal scrutiny from several states’ attorneys general and was the target of a federal lawsuit filed by a University of Delaware student who demanded the identities of those writing about her.
At BU, the site did its share of damage. Last fall, Dylan Norton (CGS’10) found herself the subject of public ridicule, her diction mocked and her looks likened to an “elephant fetus.”
“I was shocked and quite offended, because it made fun of my accent and said it was a result of drug use in the past, which is absolutely incorrect,” Norton says. “I was hurt at first, but didn’t let it get to me. It’s hard for someone to create their own identity when people try to make it for them.”
Mike Carollo (CAS’12) is another victim. His name — with the invitation “any thoughts?” — was first posted by a friend as a lark, but things turned ugly. “There were a lot of things written about my sex life,” says Carollo. “‘Slut’ and ‘whore’ were the nice words. It was totally malicious.”
Eventually, he says, someone impersonated him, posting his dorm and room number and the suggestion of a sexual encounter. “The intensity was kind of shocking,” he says. “It was very unsettling.”
And like a game of cyber Whac-a-Mole, within days of Juicy Campus’ farewell post, College Anonymous Confession Board, owned by a Wesleyan grad, took its place. Same premise, fewer ads.
Fima Potik (SMG’08) thinks he has a better answer: offer students a civil and entertaining alternative. Last October, the finance major launched Posh Society, billing the site as the “anti–Juicy Campus” in the style of the popular celebrity gossip page TMZ.com, where verified college kids on 14 campuses can dish on their peers in a safe environment. “We don’t want to be anything hateful, because as you saw, models like that don’t last; they’re not sustainable,” Potik says. “We want to make the average college kid a celebrity on their own college campus. If we see anything hateful, we pull it down. We’re not in the business of ruining people’s lives.”
What, if anything, should a university do about cyberbullying? Urs Gasser, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says administrators and higher education experts around the country are trying to figure that out.
“Universities should create a climate where, if teachers or workers are affected, they can speak up and know that ‘it’s not only me,’” Gasser says. “There should be a person within the organization they can call and say, ‘What can I do, and how can we work together to resolve this issue?’ Don’t further victimize the person by isolating them.”
Gasser, who is researching student-on-teacher online attacks, believes that as more interaction takes place between “digital natives” raised in the Internet age and adults, the more responsibility schools will feel to shield their staff. “You could even argue that there’s a legal obligation for employers to take measures to protect their teachers. I just learned of a case in Switzerland where the school director was able to identify the class where harassing messages most likely came from. He not only gave them a warning, but explained how harmful the harassment was, because the teacher in this particular case wasn’t able to work anymore due to psychological problems.”
Fighting back, or not
Boston University does have a policy on computer ethics, which forbids the transmission of offensive, annoying, or harassing material. The FSAO’s Guedj says the University is exploring the development of a special resource for emotionally distressed employees, and that program would welcome victims of cyberbullying.
Guedj encourages faculty members who believe they have been victimized to act quickly and tell their department chairs that false rumors are being spread. Staff members should immediately inform a supervisor and seek help through the FSAO, which can help arrange legal and psychological support.
“The research literature shows that bullying behaviors are not effectively stopped by intervening in a haphazard, case-by-case basis,” Guedj says. “Isolated supervisors and department heads who have little to no experience in such matters are usually in way over their heads.”
He calls for a united approach. “It’s like the 1960s and 1970s, when women came out about rape and workplace sexual harassment. It took women getting together and saying, ‘No more.’ We need the same type of consciousness-raising with cyberbullying.”
Until that day comes, what kind of recourse is available to someone whose reputation has been sullied online?
“Very little, if you don’t know who’s behind it,” says Gasser. Hiring lawyers and suing for IP addresses is an avenue, “but it’s a long way to go, and in the meantime the message may still be up there.”
Thomas Nolan, a Metropolitan College associate professor of criminal justice and a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, is similarly discouraging. “The Massachusetts General Laws are so far behind that they don’t even refer to the Internet with a capital I,” he says. “Much of what relates to the Internet pertains to commerce, not to criminal statutes. So prosecutors are challenged to find some kind of an applicable law that can work in particular circumstances.”
One problem, according to Nolan (SED’91,’00), is that in order to win cases of libel and criminal harassment, the burden of proof is very high. “A lot of what goes on on social networking sites, while it may be aggressive bullying behavior, does not rise to the standard of a criminal offense,” he says. “Cyberstalking may be every bit as troublesome and unsettling and terrifying as stalking, but there really isn’t any way to address it legally unless it comes up to the level where somebody actually hurts someone.”
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments