Vigilante Trolls and Online Avengers: When ‘Anti-Bullies’ Become BulliesPosted: January 16, 2014 | |
For the NYT, Emily Bazelon writes: One day last April, a 25-year-old named Ash smoked a cigarette in the garden of his London workplace and scrolled through the Twitter feed on his phone. He stopped at the headline “Who Failed Rehtaeh Parsons?” and clicked on the link, which took him to the website of The Chronicle Herald, a Canadian newspaper. The article was an example of the kind of story, about a mistreated and suffering teenager, that Ash spends a considerable portion of his life searching for online, the kind that makes him feel, as he puts it, “very rustled up.”
Ash, who asked me to use only his first name because of his online activism, learned from the article that when Rehtaeh was 15, in September 2011, she started a new high school in Nova Scotia, where she knew hardly any of the students. On a Saturday night that fall, a new friend invited Rehtaeh to go with her to the home of a boy in their school. Three other boys were also there, and the group started drinking heavily. Rehtaeh would later say that she thought she had nine shots of vodka. The girl who invited Rehtaeh said later that she left after she got angry at Rehtaeh (apparently over one of the boys), but later returned to the house with her mother looking for her. They tried to get Rehtaeh dressed and make her leave, but say they couldn’t. They didn’t call her parents; the girl asked her mother not to get Rehtaeh in trouble. Rehtaeh didn’t remember any of that taking place. She woke up the next morning between two of the boys, without knowing how she got there, and got up and took the bus home.
The four boys soon started texting and talking to other students, claiming that Rehtaeh willingly had sex with each of them. The rumors whipped through the student body, along with a cellphone photo, taken by one of the boys, of another boy having sex with Rehtaeh.
The following Saturday, Rehtaeh and her mother, Leah Parsons, went to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and reported that she had been raped. A few days later, when they were able to get a copy of the explicit photo, they took it to the police and were told there would be an investigation. According to Leah Parsons, it then took 10 months for the police to try to interview the boys, who refused to talk to them. Their phones and computers were never searched, Parsons says. (A spokesman for the R.C.M.P. said he could not comment on the investigation.) A year after Rehtaeh made the rape claim, the police told her they didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges, either for assault or for distributing the photo, which could be considered illegal under child-pornography laws.
In the months that followed, Rehtaeh cycled between intense bouts of shame and humiliation. She had been a good student; now she didn’t want to go to school. “Rehtaeh was suddenly shunned by almost everyone she knew,” Leah Parsons wrote on Facebook. “She struggled emotionally with depression and anger.” Rehtaeh switched schools and made a few new friends, but she still felt hounded by the events.
In early April 2013, Rehtaeh hanged herself in the bathroom of her home. Her parents blamed, in part, the decision not to prosecute for her suicide. “The justice system failed her,” Leah Parsons posted on her Facebook page. Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, wrote on his website: “How is it possible for someone to leave a digital trail like that yet the R.C.M.P. don’t have evidence of a crime? What were they looking for if photos and bragging weren’t enough?”
As Ash read those questions in the garden in London, he felt a rising anger and clear sense of purpose. Rehtaeh was yet another victim, not just of the boys who had hurt her but of an indifferent system of law enforcement that further destroyed her reputation and sense of self by allowing them to get away with it. Ash was one of a growing number of Internet activists who try to protect vulnerable teenagers and avenge online bullying and sexual assault. He vowed that day he would do something about Rehtaeh Parsons’s death.
Six months earlier Ash encountered another case of teenage suicide, this one involving a 15-year-old from Vancouver named Amanda Todd. Before she killed herself, Amanda posted a video on the Internet in which she described how a man persuaded her to flash him online, then used her topless screen shot to stalk and blackmail her.
After reading about the case and following the reaction to it on Twitter, Ash began messaging with a Canadian geologist in her 30s who goes by the alias Katherine Wells. Katherine, too, was moved by the story and had reached out to Amanda’s mother and won her trust. Ash was impressed by Katherine’s willingness to take action and insert herself into events, and they decided to team up to help children and their families. The group, which they called OpAntiBully, soon grew to a core of eight, including two experienced hackers, and eventually a handful of others signed on, including a doctoral student in psychology in her 30s living in Scandinavia and a 14-year-old Dutch teenager whose parents didn’t know about his online life…
Emily Bazelon is a contributing writer for the magazine and a senior editor at Slate. Her book about bullying, “Sticks and Stones,” will be out in paperback next month.
- Social media 2013 year in review: vigilante justice (globalnews.ca)
- Outrage Erupts Online Over 17-Year-Old Girl’s Suicide After Her Rape Goes Viral (buzzfeed.com)
- Rehtaeh Parsons suspects in court in child pornography case (cbc.ca)
- How Rehtaeh Parsons taught us about respect (metronews.ca)
- Delay in case of teens facing child pornography charges in Rehtaeh Parsons case (globalnews.ca)
- Candles, poems, songs at vigil in Rehtaeh Parsons’ honour, would’ve turned 18 Monday (metronews.ca)
- Rehtaeh Parsons: Case of teens facing child porn charges delayed until March (thestar.com)
- Case of teens charged with child porn after Rehtaeh Parsons’ death due in court (globalnews.ca)