When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying?

Calling out racists who posted offensive comments about President Barack Obama seems like a great use of the internet and social networks — after all, that kind of behavior is easier to identify than it has ever been before, thanks to Twitter search and Facebook profiles. But what if the people making those comments are high-school kids? Is it still okay to identify them and subject them to public ridicule, or worse? Those are just a few of the questions I asked myself after I read a Jezebel piece on Friday that did exactly that — including calls to the schools that these students attended.

These are questions that seem to be coming up more and more frequently as we live increasingly large parts of our lives online: When is it okay to publicize someone’s identity for things they said on Twitter, and what kinds of consequences do we think are appropriate for online bad behavior?

The post by Jezebel co-founder Tracie Egan Morrisey — which was entitled “Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets About the ‘Nigger’ President” — was a followup of sorts to a previous post that highlighted a number of racist tweets posted to the service following Obama’s election victory on Tuesday night. None of the users who posted them were specifically identified, but in the more recent piece, Morrisey identified several students at a number of schools in the U.S. who posted similar comments. The story also went into some detail about them, noting that one student “plays football for Xaverian High School, a private Catholic prep school in Brooklyn, NY,” and that others also play sports for their schools.

What is an appropriate response for a single tweet?

The point of doing this seemed to be that most schools have codes of conduct, particularly for those who represent the school on sports teams, and racist tweets would appear to be in contravention of those rules. But is publicly identifying these students — who are legally children — on a website like Jezebel really an appropriate response to what in some cases was a single tweet? In an email, Morrisey said that she felt there was no issue with writing the story, since the students in question had already publicly identified themselves through Twitter profiles and Facebook profiles:

We actually did not “out” the identities of these tweeters — they did, through their public Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles. They used their real names, listed their schools and their locations, and thus broadcasted these details to the entire world by virtue of putting them on the internet.

We chose to get in touch with the school administrators who are charged with educating these individuals because the institutions not only have mission statements about their educational goals, but they also have student conduct codes.”

Some commenters on Jezebel clearly disagreed with the site’s decision. One comment that got a lot of votes from other readers asked “Is this what we’ve come to?? Internet shaming children, blasting their crimes across the web?” And others who specialize in online behavior, including sociologist Zeynep Tufekci from the University of North Carolina, also said they found the public shaming troubling:

[tweet https://twitter.com/techsoc/status/266981172129705985]

Many of those who took part in a Twitter discussion of the issue with me on Friday believed that the students in question should have to face the consequences of their actions — after all, the internet is a public place, they argued, and even children need to realize that making such comments could affect their lives. Others said that public shaming of racism is the only way to effectively fight such beliefs, and therefore what Jezebel did was appropriate.

[tweet https://twitter.com/kathodgson/status/266977824932503553]

Is there no room for online mistakes any more?

One of the things that troubles me about this incident is that it shows how quick we can be to judge a person — especially someone in high school, who may be acting badly for all kinds of complicated reasons — without any real understanding of what is going on, or what the repercussions may be. Making people face the consequences for saying things online is a noble goal, but is there no room even for children to make mistakes without the full force of the internet being brought to bear? As far as I can tell, Morrisey didn’t even try to contact the high-school students she profiled, or their parents.

[tweet https://twitter.com/eclisham/status/266998371179454465]

A quick internet search of one of the individuals mentioned shows that this incident is the top result for their name. Maybe that will fade over time, especially since some of those involved seem to have deleted their accounts — or maybe it won’t. Couldn’t the same thing have been achieved by calling the schools to identify the students, without doing so in the article itself? Morrisey denied that there was any attempt to “shame” those involved, and yet the headline talks about forcing these students to answer for their alleged crimes. Is this kind of online vigilantism really going to solve anything?

[tweet https://twitter.com/nwjerseyliz/status/266979975012446209]

Similar issues came up during the recent public outing of a notorious Reddit “troll” named Violentacrez, who was profiled in a Gizmodo post, and the similar revealing of a Twitter user who went by the name ComfortablySmug, who posted inaccurate information during Hurricane Sandy. The Reddit moderator was seen as fair game by many because he created threads devoted to child pornography and other offensive content, but ComfortablySmug was a less obvious case — as we noted in a post and an internal debate that we published about the issues raised by such online lynch mobs.

Both of those individuals were adults, however, and presumably understood the consequences of their actions before they engaged in them. How much should we expect high-school students to suffer for what might have been an offhand comment or an attempt to impress their friends? How much public ridicule or online condemnation is too much, and when does it cross over into outright bullying? These are issues we are going to be confronting more and more as we live out our lives online, and the answers are not obvious.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Cotidad and See-ming Lee