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Jessi Slaughter's Internet Infamy

Jessi Slaughter's Internet Infamy

It wasn’t all that long ago that Jessi Slaughter was just like so many other American tween-aged girls: chatting about boys, interested in clothes, and hoping for a little attention. She got what she wanted. But attention in the Internet world can often become unwelcome. VOA's Doug Bernard has this look at the story of Jessi Slaughter.

“Jessi Slaughter” is not her real name – it’s an alias the 11-year-old chose when surfing the internet. While living with her parents in Florida she used her online alias when posting some revealing photos and profanity-laden videos - via the live-stream social network Stickam.

The language in her videos would be considered vulgar coming from an adult, let alone a seventh-grader. Reaction was swift and uniform: her YouTube and MySpace accounts were soon flooded with people condemning her, often using similarly offensive language.

Jessi responded by posting more videos where she dismissed "hater-b*****s"as merely jealous, and threatened to "...pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy." Her critics pounced.

Lead by the anonymous online 4chan community, the online mocking soon made its way into Jessi Slaughter’s off-line life. Users posted her real name and address, the name and workplace of her boyfriend, and other personal information. They circulated unfounded rumors of Jessi's sexual activity and drug use. Reduced to tears, Jessi railed live online at her tormentors. Even her father joined in her video rants against her critics. But the family’s push-back only encouraged the cyber-mob.

The resulting storm of unwanted attention made "Jessi Slaughter" the most searched for phrase on Google for a time. Encouraged by child welfare authorities, she quickly pulled her web accounts offline and stopped responding to the taunts. The mob moved on to other mischief. But for many, Jessi Slaughter's story does not end there.

"We're all just really one step away from being a bully, or a victim, and I think this demonstrates that well," says Robin Young, cyber-bullying program coordinator for the National Crime Prevention Council.

Young heads up the "Circle of Respect", a project that aims to stop cyber-bullying from spreading and help its victims. And while she agrees that Jessi acted in a poor manner - provoking her bullys instead of ignoring them - Young casts responsibility at both those who actively harrassed Jessi, and the many more who watched the videos online.

"Because cyber-bullying has that element of anonymity, we all can be guilty at any time," says Young. "All it takes is for one of us to forward it, or say 'Hey, go check out that website!', and then next thing you know, you've spread it. We can all be potentially guilty of it."

The best response to online bullying, she advises, is simply not to respond. But that may be far easier said than done, especially if the bullies number in the hundreds or thousands. The rules are different, she says, for cyber-mobs. That's the time to get the Internet service providers involved and see what they can do to remove some of that material.

Just like real-life bullying, the effects of cyber-bullying can be severe, and long-lasting. "Depression. Anxiety. People withdraw from their activities, things that they love to do, particularly with cyber-bullying because it's on such a large scale," says Young. Children and teens are especially vulnerable.

"Young people often feel like they can't get a handle on it. Once it's out there, it's really hard to erase it. And that, as a young person, is devastating; you feel like you're fighting the world on this."

Phoebe Prince, shortly after moving from County Claire, Ireland to a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. On January 14, 2010, after months of online bullying, she took her own life at her home. Her case, and others like it, have brought pressure on lawmake
Phoebe Prince, shortly after moving from County Claire, Ireland to a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. On January 14, 2010, after months of online bullying, she took her own life at her home. Her case, and others like it, have brought pressure on lawmake

Those feelings have even lead a few tormented teens to take their own life, such as in the case of Phoebe Prince. A young girl who moved from Ireland to Boston, Phoebe was teased at school. As bad as that was, her bullies took their attacks online, eventually driving the 15-year-old to suicide.

There haven't yet been any reported cases of international cyber-bullying, but Young says that may only be a matter of time. Still, she says, there are things that can be done to slow, or stop the abuse.

"When we hear about someone who's committed suicide, or somone whose parent has gotten involved in a negative way, we go 'oh gosh, is anything working?' But it is working, because we're still talking about it, and we're keeping it at the forefront."

In the meantime, Jessi has has pulled down all her videos and accounts. She is no longer responding to her bullys and is said to be undergoing counseling. Her critics have mostly moved on, although hundreds of videos remain - teasing, mocking or even threatening Jessi. It's a legacy she will never be able to erase.

One thing hasn't changed however: Jessi's interest in clothes. She said in a recent post she intends to start working on a new clothing line...a lofty goal for a seventh grader.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.