Just saw a disturbing story on CNN about a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, who killed herself after enduring vicious cyber-harassment. The kicker is, her tormentor was a grown woman – the mother of another girl in her neighborhood.
The premeditated cruelty of this woman’s behavior is astonishing: she posed as a teenage boy and, in an ongoing series of posts, won Megan’s trust in a way that anyone who has ever been 13 can understand, paying this little girl compliments like, “You have pretty eyes” via her My Space web page. After establishing a nice connection that thrilled Megan, the “teenage boy” (really grown woman) then turned on her, writing such gems as, “The world would be a better place without you.”
What could possess a middle aged woman to adopt as vicious, insane, and pathetic a hobby as tormenting an innocent person, in this case a child, online? The obvious answer is the woman is sick. But is that explanation perhaps too facile?
A telling detail of the story is that this woman’s 14-year-old daughter apparently had a conflict with Megan. So perhaps this woman, feeling her child had been hurt, felt “righteously” indignant toward Megan and was blind to anything but her own emotions, including the potential consequences of her actions.
The large and, in many ways, unprecedented degree of anonymity afforded by the internet allows some people – who perhaps are not bona fide lunatics or monsters, but capable of banal cruelty – to attack others in an obviously malicious way with a comfort level that social convention and fear of ostracism would prevent them from doing publicly, or if they believed that they would be held to account for their behavior.
Megan Meier was troubled before this woman tormented her. And as CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin pointed out, it would be difficult to prove, legally, that this woman’s actions caused Megan’s suicide. But Megan’s parents can pursue civil action against this woman for harassment and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress. And apparently, legislators in this girl’s home town of Saint Charles, Missouri have passed a law making cyber-harassment illegal (more on this to come).
As web sites and cyber-communities proliferate, it will be interesting to keep track of this evolving area of the law.
Surely when the Founding Fathers wrote, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…,” using media to maliciously torment or defame individuals for the purpose of venting one’s hostility was not what they had in mind.