Warning: This article contains profanity as quoted from Willow and Bristol Palin's Facebook posts. Also in Slate, read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
While the premiere of Sarah Palin's reality show was pulling in record ratings for TLC Sunday night, her daughters Willow and Bristol Palin were apparently going to the mat on Facebook. The girls, who are 16 and 20 *, were defending the show from posters who said they didn't like it. The fight seems to be real: Bristol has apologized for herself and her sister and the whole exchange has a ragged and raw tone that would be hard to fake—and is nothing like the carefully constructed TV show they were standing behind.
The headlines on Gawker and TMZ are about Willow's homophobia because she called a couple of the guys she was attacking "gay" and "faggot." The language, however typical of adolescent taunts, is shameful, especially in light of the recent cluster of suicides by gay kids. But what's also striking about the thread is that it has all the hallmarks of a typical teenage Facebook flame war. The Palins sound nothing like image-conscious celebrity kids, and since they seem to know some of their Facebook critics, the fight quickly gets personal and nasty, just as any high-school Internet battle can. Of course, the Palins aren't regular teenagers. It's not bad luck that their adolescent misfires went viral—it's inevitable. One way in which cyberbullying can be worse than the old-fashioned, schoolyard kind is that it can leave a trail—posts, texts, and photos that don't disappear when the fight is over. Willow and Bristol really can't ever press delete. The thread on the wall of a poster named Tre's was deleted from Facebook, but not before someone took a screenshot and sent it to TMZ—and the record of their mistakes is left for the rest of us to judge.
The Palin Facebook fight started with a fairly innocuous post from a guy named Tre. "Sarah Palin's Alaska is failing soo hard right now," he wrote in a status update. Why did Willow and Bristol let this get to them? TMZ says Tre went to school with Bristol and Willow, and though Willow says "I have no idea who you are," he sounds like a Wasilla local. Plus, the Palins have a Facebook history with him. "Talking shit cause you have nothing else going for you," Bristol responded to Tre on his wall. "Just like you pretended you didn't know what Dancing with the Stars was." That's it—all it takes to start a fight that continued for dozens of posts and drew in a dozen mudslingers and rubberneckers over the course of about an hour.
The fight heats up when a guy named Matt jumps in. Matt apparently went to Teeland Middle School in Wasilla with Bristol. At first, Matt sticks to criticizing the TV show and the Palins' attitude: "man these Palins really don't like it when you don't admire them fully, well Im sorry that people don't like some programming," he writes in his initial post. But after Willow retorts, "Your effin fat as hell. Stfu," Matt responds in kind, calling Bristol fat. Willow replies: "Haha your so gay. I have no idea who you are. But what I've seen pictures of, your disgusting. My sister had a kid and is still hot." She adds, "Tre stfu. Your such a faggot." Other than the text-speak abbreviations (stfu stands for shut the fuck up), this is all pretty timeless material. Kids have forever trotted out the gay and fat insults, though one likes to think it has become more taboo now to use the word faggot, especially if you're the daughter of a public figure and you're posting the word in public.
In the next round of sparring, Tre backs off, though passive aggressively. "I wasn't trying to be disrespectful towards you or anything, but hella people apparently don't like it too," he says of the series, "so there must be some truth to my statement." It's a move that both performs for the onlookers and draws strength from them. Willow is having none of it. "You weren't trying to be disrespectful? Are you kidding me? You posted it on Facebook," she writes. Willow seems to acknowledge here that Facebook is a public forum, without realizing that this will come back to haunt her more than it will Tre.
Another poster named Imran shows up to occupy the middle ground. "Ahh damn there's deff both sides to this," he writes. Tre grabs the rope Imram is throwing him. "Imran I agree with you Willow is just trippin." But Willow doesn't give an inch. "No. Im sticking up for my family," she writes. "How would you like it if I posted shit about your family? Soo stfu." At this point, I had a moment of sympathy for her. She and Bristol should never have entered into this exchange, but now they're here, and once they've decided they're defending their family's honor, how can they back out?
From here, though, the flames get scorching. The fact that Bristol and Matt went to the same school gives them personal ammunition to hurl at each other. They start to relive middle school. "Matt, I know you had a rough time going to Teeland," Bristol writes. He retorts, "Bitch if I remember right you were grabbin my ass in wrestling practice…I know I don't have a kid, maybe because I know what a fucking condom is." Bristol responds in kind: "Haha ya grabbing your ass huh? I just puked!" If this seems appallingly gross, that's the danger of getting sucked back into an eighth-grade fight. For some teens, no subject is off limits online, even if they would be better off if it was.
Soon enough, other posters show up to marvel at the train wreck ("Hahahaha goodness! This is madness!" writes someone called Raven). Willow starts to sound like someone who feels cornered. She lobs a bomb at the whole crowd: "Sorry that all you guys are jealous of my families success and you guys aren't goin to go anywhere with your lives." This backfires with everyone except Imran. "Ima be a dentist :)" he writes. "kinda wanted to be a politician. But after all this I just don't know."
It's not the last word in the fight, but it should be. Did Bristol and Palin forget for a moment that everything they wrote would be public? That as Sarah Palin's daughters, their every move will be scrutinized? The whole exchange smacks of the kind of impulsive lack of self control that's the burden of adolescence, a time when the brain is still developing in exactly these areas. In the age of Facebook, that burden has grown more onerous—a fleeting bad decision might not be fleeting after all. Maybe it's natural enough to throw some low blows in the name of defending your family. The problem, of course, is that if you're famous and you're duking it out online, everyone else will be watching. And you may end up offering a far more revealing glimpse of yourself then Sarah Palin's Alaska will ever allow.