Fake boyfriend shows (again) why we’re stuck with online cruelty

How many restless women wouldn’t fall for an animal-loving firefighter who sent gifts and liked to talk on the phone? One Illinois woman fell hard and now she has nothing but a hole in her heart and wallet after a court refused to do anything about a sick online prank.
The firefighter case was just one of two developments this week that shows how the law is often unwilling to stop those who use the internet to torment other people.
The Fake Boyfriend
Paula Bonhomme met James on a site for fans of the HBO series Deadwood. She soon realized the EMT and volunteer firefighter was “the one” after an intense flurry of messages, calls and gifts. Paula started communicating with James’ friends and family in California and soon a visit was in the works.
You can guess where this is going. As it turns out, there was no James but instead a twisted 58-year old woman, Janna St. James, who had fabricated James and more than a dozen other online identities to support the fictional romance. The phone calls? Janna had used a voice disguiser to sound like a man. The planned trips to California? Called off after “James” first attempted suicide and then suddenly died of liver cancer.
ABC News has the full account here of the strange tale that seems lifted right from the movie Catfish. The low point may be when Paula finally did go to California where she spent time with Janna who showed her some of the late James’ favorite places (Janna had befriended Paula on the same Deadwood site).
When the ruse finally blew up, Paula went to court to demand Janna pay for her suffering and for the tens of thousands she had spent on travel, gifts and therapy. After a trial court threw out the case, Paula appealed but this week the Illinois Supreme Court slammed the door once and for all. The court rejected Paula’s claim because only businesses, not people, can sue for negligent misrepresentation (other claims failed for technical reasons).
The result seems a harsh one and gives Janna St. James a free pass for her sick, drawn-out act of cruelty. The court’s ruling is not unusual, though, and coincides with another decision this week in an even more troubling case.
Tormented to death
Most people are familiar with Lori Drew, the Missouri mother who invented a cute boy named Josh on MySpace. Drew used the Josh profile to  befriend a depressed 13-year-old girl who had once been her daughter’s friend. Drew and her daughter had “Josh” flirt with the girl for weeks before having Josh turn mean and tell the girl he didn’t want to be her friend anymore and that the world would be better without her. The 13-year-old hanged herself.
The case drew national attention to cyber-bullying and led to a criminal lawsuit against Drew. The lawsuit failed but the state of Missouri did pass a law to expand the definition of harassment to include new types of computer-related acts.  This week, the state’s Supreme Court struck down most of the law, saying it could chill the free speech of everyone from teachers to Salvation Army workers.
In the bigger picture, the decision in Missouri and in the fake boyfriend case point to a larger phenomenon in which courts have shown an extreme reluctance to police online cruelty.
Last week, for instance, New York prosecutors did succeed in convicting a college student whose use of a webcam to film his gay roommate for public entertainment led to the roommate’s suicide. But the judge handed down only a thirty-day sentence and many legal observers say the conviction was based on a tortured interpretation of the state’s hate crime laws.
More broadly, the country continues to tolerate “revenge porn” sites like Is Anyone Up which paired naked pictures of young people with screenshots of their Facebook profile and other tools to identify them. The sociopathic owner of the site used the the anguished pleas of the humiliated victims as a form of further amusement. (The site owner recently took it down but apparently not for legal or moral reasons).
All of these forms of online torment strike most people as beyond the pale of human decency and raise the question why the law can’t find a way to do more to clamp down.
Stuck with It
There are two good reasons why we may have to put up with people like Lori Drew and the fake firefighter for a long time to come. The first is that courts have always been reluctant to get involved with people being mean to each other — not just on the internet, but in general.
In the case of “James” the firefighter, it’s worth noting that cads and liars have preyed on the heartsick throughout history and unfortunately always will. Indeed, the ABC News report reveals that the woman behind “James” has pulled the same sort of stunts for decades but, in the past, did them offline with fake love letters.
Courts have recognized that some things are bad but not illegal. Just because the bad act happens online doesn’t change the underlying distinction.
The second reason we will have to keep putting up with online cruelty has to do with the nature of the internet itself. For all the talk of community and the rise of tools that force us to reveal our identity, the internet is in many ways the same anonymous mob it always has been. As a judge in an earlier decision in the firefighter case wrote:

The reality of the Internet age is that an online individual may not always be-and indeed frequently is not-who or what he or she purports to be.

(Image by liveostockimages via Shutterstock)