How should Facebook and MySpace handle cyberbullying?

The new world of online cruelty.
March 25 2010 3:01 PM

How Should Facebook and MySpace Handle Cyberbullying?

Plus: Which site is better at it.

When it comes to bullying, what should we expect of Facebook and MySpace?
When it comes to bullying, what should we expect of Facebook and MySpace?

One 13-year-old kid's bad day started like this: He was called into the school office and questioned about insulting and R-rated comments about his classmates posted on his Facebook page. The boy told the administrators he wasn't even on Facebook. But the page had the boy's name and photos on it. Who else could it belong to?

A year later, the boy and his parents still don't know the answer to that question. His mother says that while at first she wasn't sure, she figured out that the Facebook account wasn't her son's from the date and time stamps on the posts, because she knew he hadn't been at a computer at those moments. (The photos, it turned out, came from a friend who thought the page was real.) "Our son is STILL upset and withdrew from social interaction outside school," his mother writes. "He doesn't know who to trust because he doesn't know who did it, and was probably most hurt that we and his teachers initially thought it was him."

Facebook took down the fake page after the mother sent e-mails to the site's inbox for reporting abusive content, but Facebook "does not have a contact number where you can talk to anyone," she complained. "They did not answer any of the e-mailed questions, they only took down the page." She is most upset that Facebook wouldn't tell her who the impersonator was. "In my mind I feel unresolved, because we don't know who did this. It's like the perfect crime. You can wreck someone's life or future, certainly impact their relationships, with impunity."

What's fair to expect of Facebook, or any social networking site, when kids use it as a weapon against each other? Some parental frustration is directed at the federal law that prevents the sites from identifying their users (unless you have a subpoena in hand). Given that law, the main remedy Facebook and other social network sites can offer is taking down an offending post or page and punishing the person who put it up, either with a warning or by deleting their whole profile.

How and when social network sites go about such policing of their users is up to them. Do the sites take such matters seriously? I compared Facebook and MySpace. According to the child advocates I talked to, MySpace—in spite of its lower-rent reputation—has led the way on this issue. "MySpace got negatively branded, but I think it's safer for young people," says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

MySpace let teenagers 13 and older onto the site before Facebook allowed youngsters to sign up. In 2006, after bad press and criticism from state attorneys general about the risk of adults preying on teens, MySpace brought in a former federal prosecutor, Hemanshu Nigam, to rework its safety, security, and privacy settings.

Willard talked me through the features she likes: Privacy and commenter-blocking settings that are easy to navigate and good safety tips, like "Don't post anything that will embarrass you later." Also, "the default setting for 13- to 15-year-olds is set to keep comments hidden," Nigam says, which means only the page's owner sees them. The default setting for posts by teens younger than 18 is "private," which means they control who sees them. MySpace uses an algorithm to patrol for users who are lying about their age and says it deletes hundreds of such accounts each week. The site also has monitors who patrol it, trying to detect problems on their own. Nigam said these monitors give high priority to obscene photos and to postings about suicide or runaways and alert the authorities when they find them. MySpace also provides a 24-hour phone hot line, as well as an e-mail inbox, for parents and schools to report posts they think are abusive. MySpace staffers reply to messages sent to the inbox.

Facebook is straightforward about why it doesn't have a hot line for handling complaints. "To be honest, we don't spend a lot of time getting back to people," said Joe Sullivan, the site's chief security officer. "Our priority is reviewing the content and removing it if we think it's inappropriate." This didn't satisfy the mother whose 13-year-old son was impersonated. "I literally spent HOURS on this situation, a 15-minute phone call would have gone a long way," she wrote to me.

Sullivan emphasized Facebook's contextual warnings. Before you set up a group, for example, the site warns you not to post abusive material, because it has learned that groups are often the venue for abuse (as with Kick a Ginger Day, the Facebook group that police say may have gotten a 12-year-old redhead beaten up in Southern California last fall). The warning states that groups that attack a specific person or group of people aren't allowed and says your account may be disabled if you start one. But for the most part, Facebook relies on its users to report on cyberbullies. "Sometimes it feels like there's no point in being proactive, because our users report content to us literally minutes after it goes live," Sullivan said.

Both Facebook and MySpace give themselves wide latitude to delete posts in the terms of use they require users to sign to register. But neither site would tell me how many complaints they get or how often they punish users who use the site to gang up on one kid or impersonate another. So it's hard to quantify their efforts. Sullivan said bullying is relatively rare on Facebook; it's hard to know what to make of that claim, too. And given the millions of postings each week on the site, if even a tiny fraction of the whole are using Facebook to bully, that's still a lot of online meanness. When I asked Slate readers to e-mail me with their stories of cyberbullying, complaints from parents, teachers, and student about nasty users on Facebook hit my own e-mail inbox.

It's clear, though, that the sites have at their disposal a punishment that some kids probably dread more than being suspended from school or grounded: deleting a profile. Sure, you can change a few letters in your name and start over. But you've lost every photo and note you've ever posted and every friend you've made. "It's like being banished from your town," Nigam said. (Facebook and MySpace also ban the e-mail address associated with an account when they disable it and say they have extensive gray lists that prevent people from signing up with names commonly associated with fake profiles.)

Of course, it's not up to Facebook and MySpace to fight bullying rather than schools and parents. The sites "are not in a position where they can serve as guidance counselors," Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft, pointed out to me in an e-mail. She thinks that Facebook and MySpace should work with guidance counselors—the sites could alert schools to chronic bullies or just help teachers and administrators navigate them. But Boyd thinks that at the moment, most counselors "are ignoring the technology or just thinking it's bad rather than seeing it as a tool for helping them do their jobs better."

A larger question is whether to tinker with Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act, the law that protects Web sites from liability for the content their users posts and that bars sites from giving out the names of users to worried and outraged parents. Anonymity is a feature of the Web that First Amendment advocates tend to swear by, because they think it's essential to honest, if raw, discourse. The counterargument, expressed in this article by Nancy Kim, a professor at the California Western School of Law, is for "easy unmasking" of the identity of a harasser whose target is not a public figure. Instead of a subpoena, Kim suggests an affidavit signed by the victim explaining why anonymity isn't warranted. "Turnabout is fair play and may enforce the social norms that currently exist in the offline world," she writes.

Putting the decision to out a bully in the hands of sites like Facebook and MySpace would take some getting used to—traditionally, that authority lies with judges who issue subpoenas, not private companies. On the other hand, there are signs of frustration with free speech absolutism online, including a recent California appeals court ruling that found that teens who posted statements like "Faggot, I'm going to kill you" on a 15-year-old's personal Web site could be sued for defamation and hate crimes. European regulators said this week that Facebook is "not abiding by the law in Europe" by allowing users to post photos, videos, or e-mail addresses of other people without their consent.

But if Facebook and MySpace started unmasking their bullies, would kids just decamp en masse for more anonymous and lawless worlds? A middle-school teacher told me recently that her students' new Web site of choice is Formspring.me, where the whole idea is to field questions from anonymous users. But at the moment, Facebook rules with 400 million worldwide users, with MySpace in second place with 100 million. Would the teenage corners of the sites be more civilized if the sites had the power to name the bullies hanging out in their virtual hallways? Maybe a little outing would go a long way.

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