Gossip on Steroids: Cyber-Bullying, Stalking, Harassing

courts and elected
officials have not settled
where to draw the line
between free speech and
harassment when it comes
to the Internet.

Dr. Rosa CintronDr. Rosa Cintron

Gossip isn’t what is used to be. It has gone from over the fence to over the Internet, Dr. Rosa Cintron told student affairs professionals at the NASPA 2010 conference in March in Chicago. She’s associate professor of educational research, technology and leadership at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

As lead editor of College Student Death: Guidance for a Caring Campus (2007), she was drawn into investigating “the awful experiences of campuses.” Technology lets people do almost anything on a larger scale, including making students’ lives miserable.

Cyber-bullying has drawn national attention for its role in suicides of several middle school and high school students.

  • Megan Meier of Missouri hanged herself at age 13 after a former friend’s mother took a male alias on MySpace, pretended to become her boyfriend and then publicly “dumped” her.
  • Ryan Halligan took his own life at 13 in New Jersey after rumors spread online that he was gay.
  • Phoebe Prince killed herself at 16 after months of face-to-face and online taunting at her Massachusetts high school. Nine teenagers involved were indicted on felony charges.
  • Alexis Pilkington of New York got harassing posts on Facebook; even after her suicide, the nastiness continued on a memorial Web site set up by her friends.

Clemson University SC psychology professor Robin Kowalski found that cyber-bullying causes more depression and anxiety than traditional bullying, in part because it can be anonymous. With college students it’s more often termed gossip or harassment but the effects are still devastating.

Why humans gossip

Gossip has always been with us. At its simplest, gossip is a conversation between two people about a third person who is not present. “Two-thirds of our conversation is gossip but only 5% is negative,” Cintron said. Negative gossip is often about a conjecture that can injure another person’s credibility and reputation.

Gossip long served a positive social purpose, law professor and privacy specialist Daniel J. Solove argued in The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (2007). Public shaming enforced social norms by punishing violators. In most cases it was localized and short-lived.

In a campus study, Frank McAndrew, Emily Bell and Maria Garcia gave students scenarios and asked which gossip they would pass on and to whom. In their article “Who Do We Tell, and Whom Do We Tell On” (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 2007) they reported that damaging news about rivals and positive news about friends was most likely to be passed on.

For most of human history face-to-face gossip was a tool for negotiating and maintaining social status. Cintron compared its cultural role to the grooming ritual by primates and cats, which helps to hold relationships in place.

E-gossip is different

Changes in society and culture have broadened the medium. They’ve also brought changes in the law, which is still in flux on the issue of Internet gossip.

Slander and libel laws limit what can be said in print or on radio or television, especially if it’s a falsehood about a private individual. Public disclosure of private facts may also be grounds for a lawsuit, except for celebrities. Insults written on bathroom walls are anonymous so it’s hard to sue, but you can always paint over them.

Electronic gossip—via email, instant messaging, text or digital messages to cell phones, social networking sites, blogs, chat rooms or discussion groups—is different:

It can circulate to a wide audience, no longer being limited in time or place. Even if the individual did violate social norms, the shaming is no longer in proportion to the offense. Internet gossip is out there for the whole world to see.

It may stay online forever, unlike conventional gossip that eventually dies down. Once slurs are posted on the Internet it’s very difficult to get them back down, and you can’t just paint them over. Internet gossip is not so much like a scarlet letter as a permanent tattoo or brand.

Like writing on bathroom walls but unlike word of mouth, it can be anonymous or posted under a fictitious name—and negative gossip usually is. Reasonable as it sounds to apply laws about slander and libel to harmful lies online, how do you know whom to hold responsible?

Anybody can find the item by entering the person’s name into a search engine, even if it’s not the information they were looking for. If someone decides to post that your sister or daughter is “the biggest slut on campus,” 10 years later that may be why she doesn’t get called back for a second job interview.

“Once information is posted it becomes a permanent record,” Cintron said. “Who will access it? What judgment will be made?”

Campus gossip Web sites

The rape of a Fordham University NY student was bad enough. Adding insult to injury, a few months later she found her ordeal being mocked on the now defunct Juicy Campus Web site, where messages said she deserved it. In another incident Juicy Campus named a Yale sophomore, saying he had been in a pornographic movie and gave a link to a site showing him in explicit acts with men. About 900 viewers visited the site in just a few days.

Whereas blogs, chat rooms or social networking sites can be set up for legitimate purposes and then misused, the new campus gossip websites exist to spread malignant rumors posted anonymously. Anti-Semitism, anti-Asian sentiment and homophobia are rampant.

Site administrators say the sites are innocent entertainment, like celebrity gossip Web sites and tabloids. But celebrity status brings a recognized trade-off for privacy; being a college student does not. JuicyCampus.com, founded in 2007, listed by name the “sluttiest girls,” the “biggest Cornell University cokeheads” or people with herpes.

Terms and conditions had users agree not to post anything “unlawful, threatening, abusive . . . or invasive of another’s privacy.” But invading personal privacy anonymously was the whole point of the site.

Juicy Campus gave rise to a firestorm of protest: on Facebook, in campus newspapers and in resolutions by student governments. At least two colleges blocked access and a few students brought lawsuits.

Not surprisingly, the furor drew more attention and traffic to JuicyCampus.com. The site closed without apology in February 2009, citing low advertising revenues.

Remember The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Each time the apprentice breaks the broomstick, two new brooms take its place. Now there are Campus Gossip, enhanced with a section for photos and videos, and College ACB (for “Anonymous Confession Board”), with college-specific links and a redirect from the old Juicy Campus address.

What’s a college to do?

Most student affairs professionals are familiar with Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of identity development, which shape the traditional-age college years. Among them are (2) managing emotions, (4) developing mature interpersonal relationships and (7) developing integrity.

Because these vectors are still under development in college students, they are apt to exercise poor judgment about consequences, to themselves or to others. In emailing a nude photo to a boyfriend or putting a drunken video on YouTube, they rarely consider its potential to harm their reputations in the long run. Nor have some learned how to behave with integrity toward others.

Attorneys, courts and elected officials have not settled where to draw the line between free speech and harassment when it comes to the Internet. It’s also unclear whether colleges can be held responsible in any way. In a recent case, a student’s mother filed a civil rights complaint against Hofstra University NY for failure to act on her complaint about online sexual harassment under Title IX.

How have universities reacted to gossip sites?

  • Politely asked a site’s leaders to tone it down.
  • Called for a boycott.
  • Hit the site where it hurts: financially.
  • Spammed the site.
  • Ignored it.

Fox Valley Technical College WI and Emmanuel College MA have spelled out policies for using Facebook. Antelope Valley College CA publishes guidelines for computer use and email, allowing campus action against inappropriate uses including “using electronic email to harass others.”

While Americans once feared being watched by Big Brother, now it’s their anonymous neighbors or classmates— armed with cameras in their cell phones—who pose a threat.

Soon a student may graduate into a world where there’s no need to do a resume; potential employers will just Google her. No need to have interviews; they’ll just look at her Facebook page.

Instead of enlarging our freedom, the Internet may reduce our freedom by taking away any personal privacy.

Contact Dr. Cintron at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2010, July). Gossip on Steroids: Cyber-Bullying, Stalking, Harassing. Women in Higher Education, 19(7), p. 18-19.


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