I was cyberbullied: a virtual victim fights back
The internet is seen as an 'anything goes' medium. But one woman went to court over a blog that was defaming her – and won. Edward Helmore reports
Wednesday 07 October 2009
Fashion models' after-lives can take them to unexpected places, as Liskula Cohen found out. She made headlines in August after she sued Google for the email address of an anonymous author who slagged her off as "#1 skanky superstar" and "a psychotic, lying, whoring ... skank" on a Google-hosted blog.
By ruling in the 37-year-old Cohen's favour, Manhattan federal justices have set new guidelines: no longer will bloggers be able to lob insults from the safety of assured anonymity.
The unmasked blogger turned out to be a faint acquaintance from the Manhattan nightlife scene – namely 29-year-old Rosemary Port, a fashion student who had created the Skanks in NYC site. Though she apologised, Port until recently maintained her privacy was violated and threatened a $15m counter-suit against Google for giving her up.
The case has helped to clarify which terms of insult are libellous, such as "ho", which are merely wounding, like "skank", and along the way offered New York tabloids front-page news of two attractive women in cat fight. "Secret Grudge of NY Skankies" blazed the New York Post.
While it's tempting to view the case as a girlfight that spilled out of a nightclub and into a courtroom, it's illuminated genuine privacy issues and given Cohen, a Vogue model, a voice fashion alone never offered. She's joined a growing chorus of commentators who say the internet, or specifically blogs, are an increasingly unreliable place to find information and used for cyberbullying.
But the justice presiding in the case rejected the blogger's defence claim that individuals cannot be libelled online because blogs "serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting", and should not be treated as factual assertions. The court sided with Cohen, citing defamation "concerning her appearance, hygiene and sexual conduct".
Last month, in her new role as cyberbullying spokesperson, Cohen participated in a panel at the University of Tennessee on internet privacy that featured John Seigenthaler, the journalist and former Robert Kennedy aide who was subject to a false Wikipedia entry claiming he was a suspect in the assassination of John F Kennedy, a representative from AP and a bloggers' rights advocate.
In the increasingly busy area of internet rights, cyber policy pundits fret that censorship efforts, privacy mandates and regulations threaten the original cyberspace "presumption of liberty". A competing concern is how to limit the dissemination of poor or incorrect information and to curb bad or even threatening behaviour. Clearly, Cohen has hit an issue of gathering importance. The insight Cohen has been granted through her experience and actions has placed her now at the forefront of the cyber-bullying issue. She says she had no doubts she should take up the cause after she received a message of support from the mother of Meghan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who killed herself in 2006 after being cyberbullied by a friend's mother posing as an online boyfriend.
"We do have the freedom of speech but we don't have the freedom to defame," reasons Cohen. "If the internet is just supposed to be the Wild West, a do-what-you-want, say-what-you-want place and no longer a reliable source of information – which is what I think it was intended for – then I want no part of it.
"It's been very frustrating for me. Now, I find myself limiting my internet use to just going to reputable sites," she continues. "I used to surf all over the place and make the assumption that what I read was truthful. Now it's a case of, well, who knows?"
In one sense, Cohen is becoming part of a growing movement of internet users who now find the medium too chaotic. Information moves so fast, with distortions added at each rewrite, that a counter reaction may be growing that will bring surfers back to more reliable sources and perhaps place a premium value on good information.
Liskula Cohen's online ordeal began when a client on a modelling job drew her attention to a "horrible" posting about her. The blog featured pictures of Cohen simulating sex with a black DJ friend and said that she was performing oral sex "again and again". Cohen detected an undertow of racism.
"It was one of the things I found most hurtful. To sue someone over being called a "ho" alone would be ridiculous. I don't have a think skin – I've been a model for 20 years so I've dealt with rejection." But when her case came to court, Port's lawyer cited a picture Cohen herself had posted on the internet. The lawyer counter-claimed that the drama was due to Cohen's love of the spotlight and said she had brought this notoriety on herself.
Cohen's tale suggests – at a minimum – the life of models in New York nightclubs is fairly toxic environment, the darker side of Sex and the City if you will, and features dependent relationships of promoters and louche types, models and dealers, bouncers, DJs, second-tier royalty and middle-aged playboys.
Not surprisingly, the experience has soured the Manhattan demi-monde for Cohen, a Canadian. "There are very few places I'll go now," she says. "I won't just go anywhere. I need to know there are friends there, otherwise I get freaked." And as for the internet, Cohen believes there should be some form of control.
It's a view Wikipedia recently adopted when it instituted a layer of editorial oversight of biographies of living people. "If you're using your computer to do positive things, more power to you," Cohen says. "If I can use my voice for positive change then I will. But if you're on your computer to spread bullshit, get a life."
Web of evil: What is cyberbullying?
"Sexting" might sound like naughty teenage fun – the term refers to teens taking nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and sending them to others via mobile phone. But out of their hands, pictures can easily be uploaded to social networking sites, or forwarded to other mobiles. And if an underage teen gets caught sending explicit images, they run the risk of being convicted as a sex offender. Jessica Logan, an 18-year-old from Cincinnati, Ohio, sent a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend, which wound up being seen by hundreds of teens who then taunted Jessica online, calling her a "slut" and a "whore" on her Facebook and MySpace pages. After several months of abuse, in June 2008, Jessica hanged herself. In Greensburgh, Pennsylvania, six teens ended up in court, facing charges of child pornography, after three underage girls shared sexual images of themselves with male classmates via their phones.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo, which have tens of millions of users worldwide, have revealed a dark side as potential tools for cyberbullying. Several suicides cited online bullying as a contributing factor, and teens are even facing criminal charges for conducting web-based hate campaigns. Keeley Houghton of Malvern, Worcestershire became the first Briton jailed for online bullying in August, after the 18-year-old posted death threats on the Facebook page of a schoolmate, Emily Moore. In July this year Megan Gillan, 15, of Macclesfield, Lancashire, died from an overdose of painkillers after poisonous messages were posted by fellow students on her Bebo page, and 13-year-old Sam Leeson hanged himself at his parents' Gloucestershire home in June 2008 after being mocked online for his musical taste.
Violent attacks can be easily captured on mobile phones, providing a record of the event that promises kudos for gang-members. Filming such attacks is a prosecutable offence. In a landmark case in February 2008, a 17-year-old girl was found guilty of aiding and abetting the death of Gavin Waterhouse in Keithley, West Yorkshire, after she filmed her friend delivering the fatal beating.
Politicians may embrace social networking site Twitter as a chance to broadcast their opinions via the ultimate soundbite: the 140-character tweet. But a surge of imposter tweeters have been causing trouble, and quotes from fraudster politicians, celebrities and even the Dalai Lama have been quoted by a credulous media. Conservative blogger Donal Blaney is attempting to take his Twitter imposter, @blaneysblarney, to court over the issue. Last week, in response to a petition filed by Blaney, the High Court sent the first ever injunction via Twitter, as a message directing @blaneysblarney to a web page commanding they desist from posting misleading tweets.
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