Thursday, September 30, 2010

Suicide and gay shaming through online privacy invasion at Rutgers University

A search for [Rutgers suicide] — not on the whole web, but restricted to blog posts only in the past 24 hours — returns over 8,500 results right now. The same story is also on the front page of Memeorandum, a website that automatically generates a list of the top news stories being covered by both traditional journalists and bloggers.

This is the story that's getting so much attention:

The death of a Rutgers University freshman stirred outrage and remorse on campus from classmates who wished they could have stopped the teen from jumping off a bridge last week after a recording of him having a sexual encounter with a man was broadcast online. . . .

A lawyer for [Tyler] Clementi's family confirmed Wednesday that he had jumped off the George Washington Bridge last week. Police recovered a man's body Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River just north of the bridge, and authorities were trying to determine if it was Clementi's.

Clementi's roommate, Dhraun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invading Clementi's privacy. Middlesex County prosecutors say the pair used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex on Sept. 19 and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi's suicide. . . .

Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years.
Whether or not Ravi and Wei end up receiving any criminal punishment, they've already been punished in the media: the New York Times is prominently displaying yearbook-style headshots of them.

The Times reports:
Rutgers officials would not say whether the two suspects had been suspended. But in a statement late Wednesday, the university’s president, Richard L. McCormick, said, “If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity.”
More details of what happened:
Ravi's Twitter feed on [September 19] referred to seeing his roommate have sex with another man in their room on the Piscataway campus, classmates said.

"Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay," Ravi said on his Twitter page in a Sept. 19 entry posted at 6:17 p.m.

Two days later, Ravi posted another entry directing his nearly 150 Twitter followers to iChat, an internet messaging service with a live video feed.

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again," Ravi wrote in the Sept. 21 post.

Ravi's Twitter feed has since been taken down. But the entries survived in a cached version of the page still available through Google's search engine this afternoon. . . .

Prosecutors said Ravi and Wei set up a camera on Sept. 19 and broadcast live images of Clementi having a "sexual encounter." Ravi is also accused of trying unsuccessfully to broadcast a second sex scene Sept. 21.
Clementi wrote this on September 22 as a status update on Facebook:
"Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
I'm interested in how an incident like this becomes a major story in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, even though it might seem to be a strictly local story that's affected a relatively tiny number of people. What is it about this story? Suicide? Homophobia? Using internet technology to bully and invade someone's privacy? Don't all those things happen all the time?

Well, none of the elements are new, but they intersected dramatically enough to grab our attention. So it's understandable that the news and blogs are covering this so widely.

But I wish the shaming of gays weren't something we passively accepted as just-the-way-young-people-are, until something like this happens. It shouldn't take a death to make homophobia temporarily worth expressing concern over. Virulent homophobia — especially among youths, who tend to have low inhibitions about broadcasting their bigotry and a strong interest in building up their reputations by tearing down their peers' — is a huge, national problem whether or not it ever kills anyone.


John Althouse Cohen said...

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