How to Stop the Bullies

The angst and ire of teenagers is finding new, sometimes dangerous expression online—precipitating threats, fights, and a scourge of harrassment that parents and schools feel powerless to stop. The inside story of how experts at Facebook, computer scientists at MIT, and even members of the hacker collective Anonymous are hunting for solutions to an increasingly tricky problem.

Lieberman would like to build this content and then determine its effectiveness by asking kids for their feedback. He isn’t selling his algorithms or his services. As a university professor, he applies for grants, and then hopes companies like MTV will become sponsors. He’s trying to work with companies rather than criticize them. “I don’t think they’re trying to reflexively avoid responsibility,” he told me. “They are conscious of the scale. Anything that involves individual action on their part, multiplied by the number of complaints they get, just isn’t feasible for them. And it is a challenging problem. That’s where technology could help a little bit. My position is that technology can’t solve bullying. This is a people problem. But technology can make a difference, either for the negative or the positive. And we’re behind in paying attention to how to make the social-network universe a better place, from a technological standpoint.”

Internal findings at Facebook suggest that Lieberman’s light touch could indeed do some good. During my visit to Silicon Valley, I learned that the site had moved from wholesale banishment of rule-breakers toward a calibrated combination of warnings and “temporary crippling of the user experience,” as one employee put it. After all, if you’re banished, you can sign up again with a newly created e-mail address under an assumed name. And you might just get angry rather than absorb the message of deterrence. Instead, Facebook is experimenting with threats and temporary punishments. For example, the Hate and Harassment Team can punish a user for setting up a group to encourage bullying, by barring that person from setting up any other group pages for a month or two. (If the account associated with the offensive group uses a made-up name, then the site’s only leverage is to remove the group.) According to an in-house study, 94 percent of users whose content prompted a report had never been reported to the site before. As Dave Willner, the content-policy manager, put it when he told me about the study: “The rate of recidivism is very low.”

He explained, in his appealingly blunt way, “What we have over you is that your Facebook profile is of value to you. It’s a hostage situation.” This didn’t surprise me. In the course of my reporting, I’d been asking middle-school and high-school students whether they’d rather be suspended from school or from Facebook, and most of them picked school.

The hacker group Anonymous isn’t the first place most parents would want their bullied kids to turn. Launched a decade ago, Anonymous is best known for its vigilante opposition to Internet censorship. The group has defaced or shut down the Web sites of the Syrian Ministry of Defense, the Vatican, the FBI, and the CIA. Its slogan, to the extent a loosely affiliated bunch of hackers with no official leadership can be said to have one, is “When your government shuts down the Internet, shut down your government.” Anonymous has also wreaked financial havoc by attacking MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal after they froze payments to the accounts of WikiLeaks, the site started by Julian Assange to publish government secrets.

Since Anonymous is anarchic, the people who answer its call (and use its trademark Guy Fawkes mask in their online photos) speak for themselves rather than represent the group, and protest in all kinds of ways. Some, reportedly, have not been kind to kids. There was the case, for example, of a 15-year-old named McKay Hatch, who started a No Cussing Club in South Pasadena, California. When the concept took off in other cities, a group referring to itself as Anonymous launched a countercampaign, No Cussing Sucks, and posted Hatch’s name, photo, and contact information across the Web; he got 22,000 e‑mails over two weeks.

But other people in Anonymous have a Robin Hood bent, and this fall, they rode to the rescue of a 12-year-old girl who’d come in for a torrent of hate on Twitter. Her error was to follow the feed of a 17-year-old boy she didn’t know and then stop following him when he posted remarks she found rude. The boy took offense and, with three friends, went after her. The boys threatened to “gang bang” her, and one even told her to kill herself. “I’m gonna take today’s anger and channel it into talking shit to this 12 year old girl,” one wrote. “Blow up [her Twitter handle] till she deletes her twitter,” another one added. The girl lived far from the boys, so she wasn’t in physical danger, but she was disturbed enough to seek help online. “I have been told to kill myself alot its scary to think people in the world want you to die :( ,” she wrote to another Twitter user who asked me to call her Katherine. “He has deleted some of them he was saying things like do you have a rope? and didnt the bleach work?”

Her pleas reached Katherine in the wake of the suicide of a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Amanda Todd. Before Amanda died, she posted a video of herself on YouTube, in which she silently told her story using note cards she’d written on. Amanda said that a man she’d met online had persuaded her to send him a topless photo, then stalked her and released the photo, causing her misery at school. The video is raw and disturbing, and it moved Katherine and a member of Anonymous with the screen name Ash. “It made me choke up,” Ash told me. When Katherine discovered that people were still sending the compromising photo of Amanda around online, she and Ash teamed up to help organize a drive to stop them and report offending users to Twitter, which removes pornographic content appearing on its site.

As Katherine and Ash came across other examples of bullying, like rape jokes and suicide taunts, they found that “Twitter will suspend accounts even if they are not in violation of Twitter rules when simply 1000s of people mass report an account as spam,” Katherine explained to me in an e‑mail. A Twitter spokesperson said this was possible (though he added that if spam reports turn out to be false, most accounts soon go back online). Twitter bans direct and specific threats, and it can block IP addresses to prevent users whose accounts are deleted from easily starting new ones. But the site doesn’t have an explicit rule against harassment and intimidation like Facebook does.

While monitoring Twitter for other bullying, Katherine found the 12-year-old girl. When Katherine told Ash, he uncovered the boys’ real names and figured out that they were high-schoolers in Abilene, Texas. Then he pieced together screenshots of their nasty tweets, along with their names and information about the schools they attended, and released it all in a public outing (called a “dox”). “I am sick of seeing people who think they can get away with breaking someone’s confidence and planting seeds of self-hate into someone’s head,” he wrote to them in the dox. “What gives you the fucking right to attack someone to such a breaking point? If you are vile enough to do so and stupid enough to do so on a public forum, such as a social website, then you should know this … We will find you and we will highlight your despicable behaviour for all to see.”

“I informed them that the damage had been done and there was no going back,” he explained to me. “They understood this to be an act by Anonymous when they were then messaged in the hundreds.” At first the boys railed against Ash on Twitter, and one played down his involvement, denying that he had ever threatened to rape the girl. But after a while, two of the boys began sending remorseful messages. “For two solid days, every time we logged on, we had another apology from them,” Ash said. “You hear a lot of lies and fake apologies, and these guys seemed quite sincere.” Katherine thought the boys hadn’t understood what impact their tweets would have on the girl receiving them—they hadn’t thought of her as a real person. “They were actually shocked,” she said. “I’m sure they didn’t mean to actually rape a little girl. But she was scared. When they started to understand that, we started talking to them about anti-bullying initiatives they could bring to their schools.”

I tried contacting the four boys to ask what they made of their encounter with Anonymous, and I heard back from one of them. He said that at first, he thought the girl’s account was fake; then he assumed she wasn’t upset, because she didn’t block the messages he and the other boys were sending. Then Ash stepped in. “When i found out she was hurt by it i had felt horrible,” wrote to me in an e‑mail. “I honestly don’t want to put anyone down. i just like to laugh and it was horrible to know just how hurt she was.” He also wrote, “It was shocking to see how big [Anonymous was] and what they do.”

Ash also e-mailed his catalog of the boys’ tweets to their principals and superintendents. I called the school officials and reached Joey Light, the superintendent for one of the districts in Abilene. He said that when Anonymous contacted him, “to be truthful, I didn’t know what it was. At first the whole thing seemed sketchy.” Along with the e-mails from Ash, Light got an anonymous phone call from a local number urging him to take action against the boys. Light turned over the materials Ash had gathered to the police officer stationed at the district’s high school, who established that one of the boys had been a student there.

The officer investigated, and determined that the boy hadn’t done anything to cause problems at school. That meant Light couldn’t punish him, he said. “I realize bullying takes a lot of forms, but our student couldn’t have harmed this girl physically in any way,” he continued. “If you can’t show a disruption at school, the courts tell us, that’s none of our business.” Still, Light told me he that he felt appreciative of Anonymous for intervening. “I don’t have the technical expertise or the time to keep track of every kid on Facebook or Twitter or whatever,” the superintendent said. “It was unusual, sure, but we would have never done anything if they hadn’t notified us.”

I talked with Ash and Katherine over Skype about a week after their Texas operation. I wanted to know how they’d conceived of the action they’d taken. Were they dispensing rough justice to one batch of heartless kids? Or were they trying to address cyberbullying more broadly, and if so, how?

Ash and Katherine said they’d seen lots of abuse of teenagers on social-networking sites, and most of the time, no adult seemed to know about it or intervene. They didn’t blame the kids’ parents for being clueless, but once they spotted danger, as they thought they had in this case, they couldn’t bear to just stand by. “It sounds harsh to say we’re teaching people a lesson, but they need to realize there are consequences for their actions,” Ash said.

He and Katherine don’t have professional experience working with teenagers, and I’m sure there are educators and parents who’d see them as suspect rather than helpful. But reading through the hate-filled tweets, I couldn’t help thinking that justice Anonymous-style is better than no justice at all. In their own way, Ash and Katherine were stepping into the same breach that Henry Lieberman is trying to fill. And while sites like Facebook and Twitter are still working out ways to address harassment comprehensively, I find myself agreeing with Ash that “someone needs to teach these kids to be mindful, and anyone doing that is a good thing.”

For Ash and Katherine, this has been the beginning of #OpAntiBully, an operation that has a Twitter account providing resource lists and links to abuse-report forms. Depending on the case, Ash says, between 50 and 1,000 people—some of whom are part of Anonymous and some of whom are outside recruits—can come together to report an abusive user, or bombard him with angry tweets, or offer support to a target. “It’s much more refined now,” he told me over e‑mail. “Certain people know the targets, and everyone contacts each other via DMs [direct messages].”

In a better online world, it wouldn’t be up to Anonymous hackers to swoop in on behalf of vulnerable teenagers. But social networks still present tricky terrain for young people, with traps that other kids spring for them. My own view is that, as parents, we should demand more from these sites, by holding them accountable for enforcing their own rules. After all, collectively, we have consumer power here—along with our kids, we’re the site’s customers. And as Henry Lieberman’s work at MIT demonstrates, it is feasible to take stronger action against cyberbullying. If Facebook and Twitter don’t like his solution, surely they have the resources to come up with a few more of their own.

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