Friday, November 19, 2010

A Lesson: Cyber-Bullying on Steroids, Typical Media Hype...or Both?

I've debated for a day or two on whether I really wanted to wade into these waters, but decided to dive in, because it is a perfect example of so much of what we try to teach students about their online lives.

Now, I realize this is a much less inflammatory topic to discuss from the wilds of Mongolia than it would be at home, but here's a question I've been pondering the past few days: is the recent brouhaha over the Palin kids' Facebook posts a good jumping off point to discuss cyber-bullying, the media, and digital footprints?

The original post about Palin's reality show  drew what can hardly be seen as anything other than a personal attack (and the use of "gay" and "faggot" as put-downs raises another issue!),  and a not untypical example of cyber-bullying.  It quickly escalated into epic nastiness, drawing in other students.   A not uncommon online battle,  where the lack of face-to-face intimacy makes it incredibly easy to write slurs you'd think twice about saying in person.  All magnified 1,000-fold by the media hype.

Regardless of one's politics, the way this played out has been fascinating to watch, and the practically hour-by-hour media updates of the Facebook flame-wars make it a (potentially) great opportunity to examine and discuss how these things can escalate and become personal, if only one could keep personal politics out of the discussion!

I feel for all parties involved, as what should have been a local argument turned into a national storm, but that's also part of what we should be discussing with our students:  posting on Facebook is hardly a private discussion, even if you're not a Palin, and the nature of our online presence carries with it a certain responsibility, or at least a need for awareness.   The very "public-ness" of this particular example is what makes such a good topic for discussion--students would certainly be engaged!

Moreover, Facebook apparently deleted the initial thread from Tre (the first poster's) Facebook page, but someone had already captured a screenshot and passed it on to the press:  our online mistakes endure in perpetuity, digital footprints can go viral.

It's also a prime opportunity to discuss the media.  Why do serious journalistic enterprises give so much attention to what amounts to a typical teen tempest?  What are the effects, both on the participants and the national discourse?  What does it say about us as a nation that we are apparently more interested in that than in the serious problems we face?

Of course, it could also be a lesson in the current state of politics, where no corner of a person's life remains unexamined or off-bounds, and every family member is drawn into the maelstrom.

The whole thing's a mess, but would make a great lesson.  If only....

And if any of you have had the nerve to tackle this with your students, I would be very interested to hear about the discussion!

UPDATE:  With all of this, one final point (or points!) from Alex Knapp's Outside the Beltway:
But here’s the thing — Willow Palin hasn’t made herself into a public figure. She’s only famous by virtue of having a famous family....Put yourself in her shoes. Think about something stupid, mean, or hurtful that you said when you were 16 years old. Think about the shame you feel about it now that you’re an adult. Think about how embarrassed you’ve been when something stupid you’ve done was made public, even to a small circle of people. Now, magnify that — imagine that the stupid thing you’ve said has been a media focus for days. Internet, TV, you name it.
It’s not fair to her. It’s disgraceful. Willow Palin has not made herself a public figure, nor did she make a public statement. She’s 16. She’s entitled to her mistakes, and she’s entitled to not have the world talking about them.

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