Junkfood Science: Internet trolling can turn deadly

November 17, 2007

Internet trolling can turn deadly

Many people believe that the only dangers on the internet are the predators preying on children on online communities and chatrooms, like MySpace and Livejournal. While they are most certainly a critical reason to take safeguards, the internet has other far reaching hazards.

The Sunday edition* of the St. Charles Journal in Missouri released the police reports and story of the tragic death of a 13-year old fat girl in Dardenne Prairie who committed suicide last year. She had been bullied by a 16-year old boy friend on MySpace — but the boy never actually existed and had been created by the mother of a rival girl on her street. Megan Meier’s story has sickened readers across the internet.

This story is heartbreaking on many levels and is filled with nuances and cautionary tales about the vulnerability of young people on the internet. It is well worth reading:

'My Space' hoax ends with suicide of Dardenne Prairie teen

His name was Josh Evans. He was 16 years old. And he was hot....Josh had contacted Megan Meier through her MySpace page and wanted to be added as a friend....Mom said yes. And for six weeks Megan and Josh - under [her mother’s] watchful eye - became acquainted in the virtual world of MySpace....

As for 13-year-old Megan...she was heavy and for years had tried to lose weight. She had attention deficit disorder and battled depression. Back in third grade she had talked about suicide, Tina says, and ever since had seen a therapist. But things were going exceptionally well. She had shed 20 pounds, getting down to 175. She was 5 foot 51/2 inches tall.... Part of the reason for Megan's rosy outlook was Josh, Tina says. After school, Megan would rush to the computer. “Megan had a lifelong struggle with weight and self-esteem," Tina says. “And now she finally had a boy who she thought really thought she was pretty."

Tina Meier was wary of the cyber-world of MySpace and its 70 million users. People are not always who they say they are....MySpace has rules. A lot of them. There are nine pages of terms and conditions. The long list of prohibited content includes sexual material. And users must be at least 14....As for sexual content, Tina says, most parents have no clue how much there is. And Megan wasn't 14 when she opened her account. To join, you are asked your age but there is no check. The accounts are free....

But Josh suddenly turned on her and wrote a mean post to her saying he didn’t want to be her friend anymore because of a rumor.

...By now Megan was in tears. “They are posting bulletins about me." A bulletin is like a survey. “Megan Meier is a slut. Megan Meier is fat." Megan was sobbing hysterically....

“I had this God-awful feeling and I ran up into her room and she had hung herself in the closet."... Later that day, Ron opened his daughter's MySpace account and viewed what he believes to be the final message Megan saw - one the FBI would be unable to retrieve from the hard drive. It was from Josh and, according to Ron's best recollection, it said, “Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you."...

Josh Evans never existed.... Josh Evans was created by adults, a family on their block... the parents of Megan's former girlfriend, the one with whom she had a falling out... The police report - without using the mother's name - states:

“(She) stated in the months leading up Meier's daughter's suicide, she instigated and monitored a 'my space' account which was created for the sole purpose of communicating with Meier's daughter. (She) said she, with the help of temporary employee named ------ constructed a profile of 'good looking' male on 'my space' in order to 'find out what Megan (Meier's daughter) was saying on-line' about her daughter. (She) explained the communication between the fake male profile and Megan was aimed at gaining Megan's confidence and finding out what Megan felt about her daughter and other people....

The response to the story was so overwhelming that reporter, Steve Pokin, wrote a follow-up a few days later, explaining what happened. The police were unable to file criminal charges in this case because there was no charge that fit. Mr. Pokin closed with a quote from the mother saying that she hopes this article can start our journey to change the law and not let another family go through what they have.

As tragic as this story is, the bigger take-home message didn’t appear in the news. While this story illustrates how easy it is for young people and their parents to not recognize a troll, the fact is, most people encounter internet trolls every day and are being manipulated by them, but never realize it. Nor do most people understand how trolls are used for purposes they never imagined.

Trolls — never up to any good

“To ‘troll’ means to allure, to fish, to entice or to bait. Internet trolls are people who fish for other people’s confidence and, once found, exploit it,” said Team Technology.

Of course, there are a lot of nut jobs and crooks online who can threaten your well-being and safety. But what motivates trolls varies. Some get off on making others feel badly, like any other bully, or on the power and superiority they feel by manipulating or influencing people; or they bask in the attention they get. Some do it as a game (yes, there are games organized on trolling) or as pranks they think are harmless, like Megan and her friends who had once made up their own fake MySpace account pretending to be a pretty girl so they could lure boys to talk to them online. And some do it for the money. But almost all pretend to be someone who they are not and create fake online personae.

As we’ve discussed here, many people believe they have made friendships with people whose real name they don’t even know. People of all ages will readily take the advice of faceless entities they believe are friends. Or, they’ll believe that experts are giving them objective, trustworthy information about health or healthcare, foods, products, science, politics, religion or almost any topic imaginable.

Growing numbers of marketers and companies — including pharmaceutical to alternative medicine — are taking advantage of the naivete among most internet surfers by hiring online ghostwriting bloggers and trolls, who will work independently or in teams. It’s a contemporary form of guerilla marketing. As previously examined, troll entities can be hard to spot, and use many common and effective professional public relations and advertising techniques. They will sometimes spend months establishing themselves as trusted entities and friends — by asking for help or information, and sharing with the group personal things about themselves that are fictitious. The goal is to give unsuspecting visitors misinformation and carefully steer the discussions, create doubt or divisiveness among the group and impugn those who threaten their sponsor’s interests, or sell something.

Trolls using the personal, social aspects of online communities are the most insidious and can hurt, upset and mislead even the smartest adults, let alone innocent children. Unbeknownst to fat and diet communities, news discussion forums, and patient advocacy and health listservs of all descriptions, trolls proliferate. They don’t just post comments on chatrooms or blogs, they also create pseudo-blogs. The most savvy healthcare professionals can be fooled and not recognize blogs, websites and online publications that are actually paid marketing.

As we’ve seen here at JFS, media is often little more than marketing. So much of the news and information we hear is whatever someone wants us to believe. Think of information on the net exactly the same way and view it just as skeptically. If you're tempted to believe something you hear, go to the original source and check out the facts for yourself.

Among the precautions recommended by Team Technology are:

· Before you invest your trust in someone — either emotional or financial trust — you should verify their bona fide nature from multiple known, reliable and independent sources.

· Beware of off-list emails that praise and flatter, or seem to evoke sympathy. If you feel yourself beginning to like someone, ask first: how much do I know about them from real life sources?

· If you do get involved with anyone via the internet, seek out verifiable data. Real people will provide information about themselves that is open-ended and leads to a myriad of sources which enable you to verify their genuine status.

The bottom line is that any entity on the internet who is hiding behind a fictitious avatar or fake name is no more your friend or a reputable source of information than a masked man in a dark alley. There are also cyberbullies who use the same cruel, nasty techniques of any other bully — often promoting hate and prejudice, with fat people popular targets of vile comments. They don’t deserve any more attention than you would give something written on a bathroom wall.

No unknown entity can be taken credibly. Especially when it comes to your health, remember that true healthcare professionals and experts will give you their real names and credentials that you can verify, and openly reveal their funding sources.

* Thank you, Rachel, for requesting Megan’s story be shared. Rachel's thoughts on Megan’s story can be found at the F-Word.org.

** More information on cyberbullying and how to protect yourself and your children is available from Stop Bullying Now and the National Crime Prevention Council.

NBC News did an investigation into MySpace and Facebook online predators and also offered helpful advice and resources for young people and their parents here.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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