Merriam-Webster defines LIBEL as:
1. A written defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression;
2. a) A statement or representation published with just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt; b) defamation of a person by written or representational means; c) the publication of blasphemous, treasonable, seditious or obscene writings or pictures; d) the act, tort or crime of publishing such libel.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the recent story of Phoebe Prince, a young girl that committed suicide as the result of bullying from her peers. The story is heartbreaking and shoves the issue of bullies into the media spotlight. We can only hope that some good can come out of this tragic story, that other lives will be saved and protected.
But there’s another issue that’s surfaced: website moderation. Besides keeping the site clean from any continued negative attacks on Phoebe (which unbelievably have continued), social networking sites are also moderating for any libelous comments about her tormenters. In defense of Phoebe and in their outrage, the community has posted threats to her tormentors on public message boards which could put any news site/message boards in a libelous position. In one instance, the information was incorrect and a local woman who shared the same last name as one of the bullies had her address and phone number posted. This innocent woman soon became the target of vicious taunts and death threats.
I work on the moderating team for a major online news site, and so far, we’ve unpublished many comments that list the bullies’ addresses, personal info on their parents, death threats, slanderous comments aimed at the victim and her family, links to libelous websites created under the names of the accused bullies, obscenity-laced taunts and other hate messages aimed at the bullies. They’ve been named the “Mean Girls” of South Hadley High School. We’re seeing many users who are posting the information on unmoderated sites, and then linking back to our clients’ sites where these posts are promptly being unpublished.
This horrible incident has demonstrated yet another reason why site moderation is critical. But it also opens another debate: Our work protects the website and it protects Phoebe, the bullies and their families…but does it protect the public? We’ll tackle this in Part 2…stay tuned.