Thursday, May 22, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #7 - The Horrors of Horace and Other Abuses


1) Facebook and MySpace Scandals:
Horrors at Horace and Megan Meier’s Suicide

Facebook has become the most powerful social networking tool since the invention of the telephone. I’ve recently seem some of the good it can do in bringing people together.

But, as the great Spiderman once said, with great power comes great responsibility. So when a rabbinic colleague pointed me toward the recent New York Magazine account of happened at Horace Mann, I began to wonder whether this genie needs to be returned to its bottle. See the article at To quote from the article, “Kids have always ragged on an unpopular teacher or ridiculed an unfortunate classmate. But sites like Facebook and are changing the power dynamics of the community in an unpredictable way. It is as if students were standing outside the classroom window, taunting the teacher to her face. Should they be punished? There were, as yet, no rules or codes for how a school should address such issues.” The article goes on to show how powerless the teachers were in this matter.

And then there was the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier and the subsequent indictment of Lori Drew, Megan’s best friend’s mother, in her murder. Read about this case here in an essay by Michele Catalano. Lori’s actions were unquestionably despicable (she created a teenage boy character who gained Megan’s confidence online and then dumped her, saying that the world would be better off without her), but the essay raises difficult questions as to whether moral blame also should be legal responsibility in this case. Because of the peculiar grounds used for the indictment, she writes, “What Drew’s indictment means, in essence, is that any Internet user now risks criminal proceedings for doing something as simple as creating a fake name to post messages on a website, something many people do each day for legitimate reasons.”

This is a legitimate question. Is meanness a crime? Is bullying the same as murder?

The Jewish answer is the moral answer. And that answer is Yes. Long before Facebook existed, the rabbis recorded in the midrash (Bereshith Rabbah 98:23), "What is spoken in Rome can kill in Damascus." Now, with that same distance traversable in a millisecond, all the more so, these words can kill.

Words have extraordinary power – the power to ruin careers, as the teachers at Horace Mann are finding out, and the power to kill, as in the case of Megan Meier. Lori Drew is guilty, but the law simply has to catch up with the technology and find a way to put her away without compromising our cherished freedoms.

2) The Quick Fix and the Chain Letter Syndrome

This week I received a heartwarming e-mail chain letter, a poem called “Slow Dance,” ostensibly written by a terminally ill young girl.

You can find it here.

I am always suspicious of dispatches like this (like that ubiquitous e-mail warning us of the anti-Holocaust curricula in the United Kingdom…or is it the University of Kentucky?), so I did some research. The poem has made its way around the cyber world several times over. If you go to Snopes -, you’ll discover, in fact that “Slow Dance” has been circulating online for eight years! And it’s a hoax. Not a harmful hoax, as hoaxes go, but a hoax nonetheless. It wasn’t written by someone who is dying, the American Cancer society will not donate money for every time this is forwarded, and Amy Bruce, the 7 year old cancer patient to whom the poem is often attributed in several variants, does not exist. You can read more background on this at Originally, the poem wasn’t even part of the hoax, and the professor named here (from Yeshiva U) had nothing to do with it, he simply was one of those good-natured souls who forwarded it, with his signature unfortunately affixed at the bottom.

Otherwise, the poem ‘aint bad.

But don’t you feel deceived – violated – when reading that it’s a hoax?

The Internet has a way of drawing us in and spitting us out. So an important precept of Masechet Cyberspace is that we should be highly skeptical of everything we read. Even people we know may not be sending us the e-mails that we think are coming from them. One spammer has in fact latched onto my own name to send things to me – from “me.” I’m now hawking Viagra to myself on a regular basis, which is somewhat disconcerting. And even when the e-mail is genuine, it can be so easily misunderstood. Such is the immense power – and the danger - of this new technological tool.

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