The recent discovery of state Rep. Jesse White’s multiple online personalities making anonymous attacks on his constituents cast a light on the dark reality of the Internet and cyberbullying.
The anonymity provided by the Internet oftentimes can be hurtful to those being targeted, but even vicious attacks aren’t necessarily illegal because they’re typically protected by free speech.
Cyberbullying, once thought to be a tool utilized mostly by young kids and teens on social networking sites, is becoming an increasingly popular way to attack others or humiliate them.
Mary Jo Podgurski, director of Washington Hospital Teen Outreach, said it typically is the product of someone who is “not courageous enough” to have a face-to-face disagreement with an opponent.
“It’s a very easy and anonymous way to be a bully,” Podgurski said. “People do really hurt each other. It’s a very vicious cycle.”
In her experiences, she’s noticed young people usually stick to sending nasty text messages or posting attacks through Facebook. It’s the adults who are more comfortable with anonymous comments through Internet message boards or even posting lewd photos of an ex.
“It’s an underhanded way to slander someone and hit them hard,” she said. “You can make specific insults, and they don’t think it’s traceable.”
And, in most cases, it is very difficult for average people who are being attacked on Internet to find their cyberbully.
Tracking a cyberbully
All Internet users leave behind a cybersignature that can be traced to a computer or Internet provider, but unlocking that information can be nearly impossible for the average person.
When a television station first reported that White was behind anonymous attacks on a Marcellus Shale website, the Observer-Reporter staff began investigating whether his alter egos also left comments on the newspaper’s website. It took hours to match White’s Internet protocol address from his verified account to two messages he posted under the pseudonym of Janice Gibson earlier this year.
In most cases, though, people must utilize the courts to reveal information, through which investigators can subpoena Internet records.
North Strabane Township police Detective John Wybranowski handles the cybercomplaints in the department and said they’re seeing more cases involving harassment on Facebook than anything else. He said it’s often difficult to determine if a crime has been committed since what a person is permitted to say under free speech laws must be taken into consideration.
“A threat of violence we have to take very seriously,” he said.
Although the district attorneys in Washington and Dauphin counties are investigating White’s comments, it’s unknown if he broke any laws with his online antics. Prosecuting such crimes can be difficult, Wybranowski said, adding many police departments don’t have the training or resources to handle these investigations.
First, an officer needs to obtain a court order to obtain the Internet Protocol number identifying the computer a suspect used to post the information. Next, a search warrant needs to be signed by a judge giving police permission to enter a home and seize electronic devices.
“The amount of work needed to investigate cyberbullying is phenomenal,” said Wybranowski.
That adds another level of difficulty, he said, because there can be four or five devices in a home, and each would need to undergo a forensic examination.
“Then you have to resolve that all the way back to determine who did the posting,” he said, adding that it’s often easier to extract a confession, especially when more than one person has access to computers in a residence.
“In Pennsylvania, the laws need to catch up with the technology, and it’s changing so fast,” he said.
There are various bills snaking their way through the state Legislature that would deal with cyberbullying or target online impersonators.
House Bill 764 would make it illegal for someone to use another person’s name to create a website, post messages on social networking sites, open an online account or send electronic messages. Ironically, White voted in favor of this bill just three weeks before his online personalities were revealed.
Joseph Schwerha, an associate professor of business law and technology at California University of Pennsylvania, said it might be difficult to enact laws and enforce them when free speech is so important for our society. He pointed to other countries that crack down on radical beliefs many would consider offensive but must be allowed here.
“We’ve always protected speech at the cost of illegitimate opinions,” Schwerha said. “There are parts of the world where there are hate speech laws, which we protect in the U.S.”
But Schwerha, who has worked on cybercrimes and online identity theft for two decades, said the anonymity of the Internet sometimes brings out the worst in people. What he found most interesting about White’s situation is that he created an army of faux online personalities to support his opinions and push forward his agenda.
“When people don’t have to reveal their true identity, they seem to say or do things they wouldn’t otherwise because they can shield their reputation,” Schwerha said.
Online message boards attached to news articles offer readers an outlet to express themselves, but also an opportunity to launch attacks against their foes.
When the Observer-Reporter redesigned its website in November, Editor Liz Rogers said they hoped the new commenting feature would engage readers and produce energetic conversations. Instead, she said, it spawned a “mob mentality” of nasty comments that were nearly impossible to police by the staff.
“It degenerated into a bunch of name-calling and insults,” Rogers said. “It just got downright nasty.”
The newspaper pulled the plug on the commenting feature in March after one reader – not Jesse White – continuously posted lewd comments and personal attacks aimed at staff members despite attempts to block him from the site. Rogers said the newspaper could eventually restore the message board, but only if it can implement a system that requires readers to register using their real names and email addresses.
“We were extremely disappointed about how it turned out,” Rogers said. “It wasn’t constructive. We hoped the dialogue would be something that would benefit both the community and staff.”
Podgurski isn’t surprised that the comments quickly turned ugly. She pointed to a recent online cereal advertisement that featured a biracial family. Despite receiving many supportive comments, it had to be censored because of the unrelenting attacks by a few users.
“Sometimes they’re just so flat out disrespectful that you don’t want to post them,” Podgurski said. “We’re suppose to have the Golden Rule.”
Ultimately, she thinks that the online discourse displayed by Internet users is just an indication of the times.
“They see a lot of anger in the political theater and on the media. I think it’s cultural,” Podgurski said. “We have a cultural problem with respect, and cyberbullying is a part of that.”
Staff writer Scott Beveridge contributed to this story.