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Off- and on-line, an outdated distinction

Almost a month ago the websites
of several newspapers and magazines (
reported the case of a young girl (11 years old) from Florida, known as Jessi
Slaughter, who had been posting videos online (,
which had been picked up by Stickydrama, a social networking tabloid website. One
of the videos was a rather childish tirade about how she was better and
prettier than everyone else. This video began an escalation, largely
masterminded by the Anonymous posters on 4chan’s notorious /b/ image board.
Hateful comments posted on online forums were followed by the publication of
Jessi’s real name, address and phone numbers. Bogus pizza deliveries showed up at
Jessi’s actual address and prank calls transformed rapidly into explicit death threats.

Slaughter responded with a retaliation video, in which disturbing language and
hateful comments towards other Internet users, who she
calls ‘haters’, were not spared. The video and the hateful comments gained more
stream when, in response to the threat to the young girl, a new video was
posted, where Jessi and her father addressed the ‘haters’ with other threats.
Eventually, after even more hateful comments and pranks, the girl decided to do
take down her YouTube account and, with it, her videos.

This isn't the
first case of the so-called cyber-prank, as it has happened with others, such
as ‘Boxxybabe’ and ‘Lexibee’. They too have since disappeared, but not before
being the target of pranks and spoofs from the Internet. One of the most
shocking cases is that of Megan Meier (
A 13 yeast old girl, who committed suicide in 2006 after being hoaxed by her
cyber-boyfriend, who turned out to be a neighbor living few houses away from
her, who had been making fun of the girl for over a month.

Cases like
this have been widely discussed in the literature of Computer Ethics as they
bring to the fore the issue of on-line trust, and more generally of on-line
social interactions. Cyber-pranks seems to present the most evident demonstration
that one cannot trust anyone in the
online environment, as the environmental condition of the Internet, i.e. anonymity
and tele-presence among others, do not allow for the persecution of illegal or
immoral behaviours. However, this is only part of the problem and not even the most
interesting one. In the end, one should not trust other users on-line in the
same way that one should not trust a stranger met in the street.

There is
another aspect that deserves attention, as it is a marked signal of our times, which
is the blurring of the boundaries between
the off-line and on-line world. In this respect, the case of Jessi Slaughter is
even more significant as it concerns young people and their access to and use
of the Internet; a generation of individuals born with Facebook, Youtube and Skype,
who do not perceive any difference between off- and on-line. To this
generation, not only are privacy and anonymity not values, but life is lived without
distinction between public and private sphere, off- and on-line activity. Neither
the former nor the latter are distinct, but a new life, which is never
completely off-line and never exclusively on-line develops.

Cyber pranks
and on-line trust show that there is a new way of living, made possible by computer
mediated communication (CMC) and ICTs, with which the younger generations are
extremely familiar. This new life is lived in a new environment, where the
world ‘out-there’ is not more real the virtual world, and the actions performed
in the latter have consequences in the former and vice-versa.

In conclusion,
this is a new scenario on which philosophers and ethicists should focus their
attention, to understand its rules and provide principles and guidelines for safer
and better living practices within it.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. It would be too harsh to say that one cannot trust anyone online. To take a trivial example, I trust that you are writing this in good faith and without malicious intent, etc. As with real life, trust is very much linked to the circumstances in which the interaction happens (I trust people, stranger though they are, at my Center for Inquiry meetings to speak their minds more than I trust strangers on the street to tell me what they think) and also the content of speech (the more controversial, one-sided, incoherent a statement, the less trustworthy it is). Similarly, I have greater trust in the statements made on this and similar blogs then I do on others. On Youtube there is good reason to trust some videos, largely in virtue of their content and authors, and no credibility is to be given to others (overwhelming majority).

    The blending of the two worlds, as it were, does seem to be a more interesting issue. However, I do not believe that there is less value being attached to privacy and anonymity among younger generations today. Rather, there is often a grave short-sightedness and ignorance about the extent to which general use of the internet is not private or anonymous and how much these goods are at risk when on-line. Every statement, image, or video you make on the internet is there (potentially) for all to see and for all to traced back to you.

    And in the case of Jessi Slaughter, having watched the video in which she sits by the side tearing up while her father goes on a tirade of his own against her cyber-bullies, I have to wonder: Where were you when she was making those provocative videos? While the bullying is not excusable it is absolutely to be expected, same as if she were to make such statements at recess in school.

    Better education is, as usual, the necessary remedy.

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