The DC Opinion: Inside Facebook’s dark and violent alleys
Facebook is the most dangerous assault weapon in the world. Its virtual property allows people to load and fire their abusive messages at its innocent members.
Facebook’s founders and staff have chosen to ignore its member-victims’ cries for help. They have refused to punish the assailants and they have refused to create safeguards to protect their members.
Below, you will read about many teenagers who recently committed suicide, some of whom were homosexual. Let me be clear: This article is not about sexual preference, nor is it about suicide.
This is about Facebook’s reckless disregard to patrol its property. This is about Facebook providing a safe-haven for criminals to launch attacks on innocent Facebook members. This is about a harmful and lethal epidemic of cyber-bullying. This is about the need for Facebook, politicians and law enforcement to create (and enforce) safeguards against cyber-abuse and prosecute those who engage in criminal behavior on the site.
The Phoebe Prince “fan pages”
On January 14, 2010, 15-year-old high school freshman Phoebe Prince hanged herself. According to prosecutors, Ms. Prince committed suicide because she was the victim of incessant bullying and physical attacks at school. Nine of her fellow students are currently charged with her death.
In response to Ms. Prince’s death, unknown Facebook members created two Phoebe Prince “fan pages”: “RIP Phoebe Prince, Show Support of BULLY PREVENTION” and “R.I.P. Phoebe Prince. You will be missed. Those girls are horrible people.”
(Any Facebook member can post a comment to a fan page so long as the member simply clicks the page’s “like” button. The creator/administrator of a fan page is anonymous; as a result, it is impossible to communicate with or contact the creator/administrator.)
Within days, the Prince fan pages transformed from a place for members to leave a tribute into a free-for-all, open house. People left despicable comments about Ms. Prince. One person wrote, “Accomplished.” Another wrote, “This girl is a low life piece of shit I am thrilled this bitch killed herself.”
Ms. Prince’s supporters notified Facebook’s administrators by “flagging” the unprovoked attacks as “abusive.” They also directly responded to the hate speech in an attempt to defend Ms. Prince’s memory.
The transformation: from Phoebe Prince to targeted-attacks against innocent members:
Facebook ignored the countless pleas for help, maybe because Facebook knew that Ms. Prince’s heirs had no legal cause of action for defamation of her character. But then the arrows of hate directed at Ms. Prince turned on those who defended her. Within a matter of days, hundreds of threats filled the pages.
Again, the member-victims flagged the abusive posts and emailed Facebook’s administrator. Still, Facebook did not respond to the pleas for help.
Then, several months later, the Prince fan pages became a hot news topic. For example, The NY Daily News reported on March 29, 2010:
The nastiness didn’t even end there. Her tormentors posted vicious comments on the dead girl’s Facebook memorial page.
For months, community anger simmered that no punishment had befallen Phoebe’s bullies. Petitions were signed and town hall meetings held.
[County Clare District Attorney Elizabeth] Scheibel said her investigators were taking the time to investigate thoroughly, and she slammed “the inexplicable lack of cooperation from Internet service providers, in particular Facebook and Craigslist.”
Facebook’s terms of service
Any person who wishes to join Facebook must first consent to Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,” which states, in part:
3. Safety: We do our best to keep Facebook safe, but we cannot guarantee it. We need your help to do that, which includes the following commitments:
6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
7. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.
10. You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.
4. Registration and Account Security: Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:
1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
2. You will not create more than one personal profile.
3. If we disable your account, you will not create another one without our permission.
In response to the negative media attention, Facebook sent a discreet clean-up crew to the fan pages and “did their best” to remove hundreds of abusive posts and monitor the pages more closely. But after the media’s spotlight dimmed, Facebook handed the pages back over to the bullies.
Even though Facebook members must make a “commitment” to use their real names, many members hide behind aliases. Most people who use aliases do so for privacy reasons and do not engage in abusive behavior. The abusive members call themselves “trolls.” These cyber-bullying troglodytes congregate on sites outside of Facebook to plan their attacks. Then, en mass, they infiltrate their Facebook target with hateful, abusive and harassing language and images.
Facebook’s response, albeit brief, to the Prince fan pages proved that its staff members knew (or should have known) about the trolls’ infiltration of Facebook’s virtual property, yet Facebook refused to sweep its entire network of the cyber gang-bangers. The task would not have been hard: Some members disclose that they are trolls in their profile names, like “Trollstica Mcjew II” or “Roland McTrolland.” Other trolls use an obnoxious play on words as their profile name: “Strawbery Sugartits,” “Cindy Fuxalot,” “Dia Beetus,” and “Raperham Lincoln,” to name a few. Raperham Lincoln’s profile picture is an image of an Abraham Lincolnesque skeleton with the words “RAPE RAPE RAPE” on the picture. (According to witnesses, Raperham Lincoln was one of the worst offenders on Ms. Prince’s pages; however, as of November 7, 2010, his profile was still active.)
The “Recent Suicides Due to Gay Abuse; Wear Purple” event page
On July 9, 2010, 13-year-old Justin Aaberg hanged himself with an extension cord; he was openly gay and complained of extreme bullying. (Five students from his school, Anoka High School in Minnesota, have committed suicide within the past year; it’s suspected that three of the deaths are related to the students’ sexual orientation.) Then, five young men committed suicide during the month of September 2010: On September 9, 15-year-old Billy Lucas hanged himself from the rafters of his family’s barn. On September 22, Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after he learned that his college roommate secretly recorded him having sex with another man. The next day, on September 23, 13-year-old Asher Brown shot himself to death after relentless bullying at school. On September 19, Seth Walsh attempted to hang himself from a tree; he died 10 days later. Seth also complained of bullying at school. Then, on September 29,19-year-old Raymond Chase hanged himself in his dorm room at Johnson & Wales. He was openly gay.
On October 5, 2010, a Facebook “event” page was created entitled, “R.I.P. In memory of the recent suicides due to gay abuse, wear purple”:
It’s been decided. On October 20th, 2010, we will wear purple in honor of the 6 gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/months due to homophobic abuse in their homes and at their schools. Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality.
An “event” page, unlike a fan page, has a named site administrator, who can either limit the event’s exposure to specific Facebook invitees or allow any Facebook member to attend the event. This particular page was open to all members and stated it was “created by” Tierney Michele Pomo. The event’s description, however, had a disclaimer: “This event was not created by me. It was created by someone who cares deeply on Tumblr, and I am only spreading the word.” Tierney was the page’s only administrator; thus, the only contact person for the event.
Within one day, over 85,000 Facebook members stated they were “attending” the “wear purple” event. It quickly became the most popular event on Facebook.
Within a few days, nearly a million people were “attending” the event, another million people were “not attending” and a few hundred thousand were “maybe attending.”
Facebook knew about this event.
The anti-gay hate
Just like the Phoebe Prince fan pages, both real members and trolls infiltrated the “wear purple” event page. This time, however, the comments flew onto the page at a much higher rate of speed; second after second, people posted comments and images not only aimed at the suicide victims, but at all gay people and any member who posted a comment in defense of the attack.
To the experts, it was surely no surprise that this event would invite the bullies. According to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey of 6,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (commonly referred to as “LGBT”) students, nearly nine out of ten reported being verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation.
The comments were not questionably abusive. Stephen G, who saved many of the posted images, saw (and reported):
Pornography of all kinds: A woman and a dog; a man and a dog; very many scatological photos like coprophilia, necrophilia and bestiality, all in a very explicit nature. A man who is copulating with a woman’s decapitated corpse. Executions of Middle-Eastern men by hanging. Graphic photos of venereal diseases. Animal torture. A woman ripping a dog apart by its limbs. A cat doused with gasoline and set on fire. Nazi propaganda and racial slurs. Countless snuff photos with murder confessions. A before-and-after photo of Tim McLean saying, “This faggot pissed me off and look what I did,” showing his eyes, nose and tongue removed and re-arranged on his head in a Mr. Potato Head-fashion upon a bloody surface.
Like Stephen G, thousands of members flagged the images as abusive, emailed Facebook’s administrator and even emailed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. No response.
The event’s creator, Tierney Michele Pomo, could not be contacted because she blocked her personal profile from receiving messages. She abandoned the page once it was created, essentially protecting herself from the accusation that she knew about the abuse taking place on her event page.
The Change.org petition
Several members who live in various parts of the United States and do not know each other — especially Kalliope A, Stephen G and Eric M — donated their time to monitoring the page. Day in and day out, they flagged as much abusive content as possible. Stephen even took screenshots of the pornographic images. He recalls that after he responded to a particularly heinous image, he received a personal message with a mutilated image of himself.
The threats and pornographic images continued to be posted on the event page — by the thousands — and members like Kalliope, Stephen and Eric continued to flag them. Many began to wonder if Facebook’s failure to respond to the rampant abuse was intentional.
Kalliope decided that she couldn’t fight “Facebook on Facebook,” so she created a petition on change.org: “Demand For Facebook’s Immediate Response To Their Support Of Anti-Gay Hate Crimes.” The petition was an urgent call to action:
For the past week, many have been fighting Facebook to remove a page that is advocating extreme violence toward homosexuals…Facebook is known to promptly remove photos depicting artistic nudity, yet despite countless requests and abuse reports, they have allowed and continue to allow this page to operate. The page is extremely active and hosts several hundred new comments and photos per hour.
Kalliope’s petition “targeted” many Facebook employees, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance and Defenders (GLAAD), numerous members of the media and other gay advocacy groups. Every time the petition was electronically signed, each targeted individual received an email.
For days, Kalliope, Eric and Stephen (along with other supportive members) relentlessly posted the petition’s link on the “wear purple” event page in response to the abusive comments. Within two days, the petition had received approximately 2,000 signatures.
Countless people also left personal messages on the petition. On October 10, Gabriella from Pennsylvania wrote, “I’m disgusted. Teenagers go on Facebook, and add this group, they shouldn’t be subject to see this. I’m 15, and it’s disgusting.” Natalie, also from Pennsylvania, said, “Enablers are just as guilty as the actors. I can’t believe nothing has been done yet!”
The next day, on October 11, Antoinette from Ohio wrote, “I went to this page to support a tragedy, and not only was I forced to look at some of the most hateful images I have ever seen, but within 10 minutes of being on the page, I had my own life threatened by two different people. I have flagged them but they remain. Please stop this page or assign it some admins to filter these awful things.”
On October 12, Sam from London commented on the petition, “This needs to be stopped and the people involved need to be punished — freedom of speech is one thing, but encouraging violence against a section of society should not be allowed and is against Facebook’s rules of conduct. Delete their profiles or at least send them a warning.” On October 13, Cassie from Florida wrote, “Mark Zuckerberg, you should be ashamed of yourself for allowing this hatred to continue on when you had the chance to fix it.” On October 15, Sherry from Oregon stated, “You must take action. Lives are at stake. This is unacceptable.”
Facebook finally decided to respond with a press release on October 15, 2010. Entitled, “Facebook and GLAAD partner to prevent ant-gay bullying,” the statement mentioned a single suicide victim by same, Tyler Clementi. Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes stated, “Educating people about the lasting and damaging impacts of ignorant and hateful comments is a responsibility shared by parents, educators, organizations like GLAAD, and services like Facebook. We take our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very seriously and react quickly to reports of inappropriate content of behavior.”
GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios was also quoted in the release. “Facebook has taken an important first step in making social media a place where anti-gay violence is not allowed,” he said.
Finally, Facebook began monitoring the site, disabling trolls’ accounts and deleting the hateful messages and pornographic images. It was clear, however, that Facebook was reacting cautiously because its staff allowed many of the somewhat benign anti-gay messages, like “Being gay is unnatural,” to remain.
Facebook punishes Kalliope
Then came the actual day of the “wear purple” event, October 20, 2010. Kalliope attempted to login to her Facebook profile page but received the message, “Your account has been disabled. If you have any other questions or concerns, you can visit our FAQ page here.”
Clearly, Facebook deleted Kalliope’s account in retaliation for the hoopla she created with the petition that forced Facebook to publicly respond. Neither Facebook nor GLAAD ever sent her a “thank you” message for drawing their attention to the abuse. Instead, Facebook punished her.
When Kalliope inquired about her account, Facebook said that if she wanted to reactivate her profile, she had to send them a photo ID to prove her identity. Her profile page and fan page still remains suspended.
The abuse continues
For the past few weeks, I have continuously monitored the Prince fan pages and the “wear purple” event page. Abuse is still alive and well on the pages.
Real people continue to leave abusive messages. As of November 7, 2010, Kellie Kane’s posts on a Prince fan page (from as early as June) are still visible. “Oh by the way, she might have killed herself because I told the skank to.” Last week, Cobin Baker posted, “Gay people should kill themselves.” That post has yet to be removed by Facebook.
Trolls continue to post hateful messages with a vengeance. Trollstica Mcjew II posts numerous comments every day, like “Gays can choke a dick and die but lesbians are fine.” As of November 8, 2010, his was still very active on the “wear purple” event page.
What about the worst offenders that Facebook most likely suspended? Many of them have returned with the same names they previously used. Last week, Nick West visited the event page, commented “Who missed me?” then posted a photo-enhanced image of a suicide victim whose face was mutilated. Below the image he wrote, “Gay bashing 1 down so many more to go.”
Facebook did not ban all of its most abusive members. Honest Cop, Matty Gibby Valeriano, Mike Vaticano (whose profile picture is of a young man with his fist inside a blown-up condom), and Bill Waggonner Crew posted some of the most egregious images on the event page, yet they still have profiles. Many abusers have common profile names, so it’s impossible to know if Facebook has suspended their profiles.
So should Facebook adhere more strictly to its policy that people can only use their real names on the network? Not necessarily, believes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the country’s leading privacy rights organization. “We believe that Facebook should allow pseudonymous profiles and shouldn’t necessarily penalize users for posting inaccurate information. People may have good reasons for doing so, and it’s a privacy-protective measure to allow them to do that,” said EFF staff attorney Marcia Hofmann.
Cyber-bullies must be prosecuted
Since Facebook refuses to address the abuse that occurs on its cyber-property, why doesn’t law enforcement step in?
Certain areas of the web are already monitored by local and federal law enforcement agencies. Detectives posing as children often visit online chat rooms in order to catch sexual predators. Police often use Craigslist to find prostitutes who are advertising their adult services.
Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., the civil rights leader and founder of The Rainbow Push Coalition, believes Facebook and law enforcement must seriously address the bullying on Facebook. He said, “It is inhumane, unkind and immoral. It denies people equal protection under the law.”
Facebook created a new world, without any protection for people being harassed, threatened and emotionally abused. Since Facebook refuses to institute self-policing measures, local and federal law enforcement agencies should patrol the site. For example, The Internet Crime and Complaint Center (IC3), a complaint depository for cyber crimes and a partner with the FBI, should be monitoring Facebook pages, tracking offenders, referring their profiles to the FBI and then demanding an independent criminal investigation. To date, not a single cyber-bullying case is publicly known to have been initiated by IC3 and the FBI. Not a single case.
Our elected leaders must take cyber-bullying more seriously and legislate against people whose behavior, but for the internet, would be punishable offenses. A person who calls a person and threatens to kill him or her would be prosecuted for harassment. Just because the threat is made on Facebook, that does not make it legal.
We cannot rely on groups like GLAAD, who are satisfied with Facebook’s “first” and only step to monitor the hate on its site. To this day, if you visit the Prince fan page you will see that it is flooded with intimidating, harassing, abusive, hateful comments.
Since the “wear purple” event page was posted, at least six more young men have committed suicide: 19-year-old Zach Harrington of Oklahoma, on October 10; 19-year-old Corey Jackson of Michigan, on October 19; 16-year-old Nick Dessofy of Ohio, on October 19; 17-year-old Terrel Williams of Washington, on October 21; 26-year-old Joseph Jefferson, on October 23; and 14-year-old Brandon Bitner of Pennsylvania, on November 5.
It is time for Facebook to shine light on its dark and violent alleys. It is time for Facebook to monitor its property, especially the locations that young teens visit the most, especially the pages that have millions of visitors, especially the pages that are expected to draw the hate speech, like memorial pages for suicide victims and homosexual children. It is time for Facebook to abide by its own rules of conduct. It is time for the cyber-bullying to end.
Tamara N. Holder is one of the nation’s rising attorneys and legal analytical stars. She is a Contributor for the Fox News Channel. She has received recognition from some of the country’s most respected people, organizations and publications. Tamara founded The Law Firm of Tamara N. Holder, LLC, in2005. Her work includes: criminal defense, expungement, race discrimination, police brutality, public policy, and pro bono practices. Seeing the need for outreach in this area, Tamara founded www.xpunged.com, a practice that provides a second chance to those individuals who have expungeable offenses under Illinois law.