Teenager Busted for Creating Fake “News” Story

By Eric Goldman

It seems like every day there are new stories about teenagers doing stupid things online, but this story still struck me as interesting and unusual.

The incident involves a website, Cheezus.com, that asks the user to submit a name and location. The site then populates this data into a pre-authored “story” about sexual misconduct. You can see a test example here. (I entered the terms “Plato,” “Athens” and “Parthenon”; the rest of the page is provided by the website–and apologies to any Plato descendants for besmirching his name). Perhaps this website does more than other sites to increase the apparent authenticity of the resulting page, but it’s not hard to find many similar websites that play off the same riff.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a 14 year old middle-schooler used the site to create a fake story about his teacher as retribution for a low grade. The teenager then printed out the pages and distributed the story to some of his school chums. A few students turned the story over to the school’s “cop,” and the teenager was busted. As a result, the teenager received a ticket for disorderly conduct plus a school suspension.

So the key question is: when does a gag cross over to impermissible mischief? We engage in a variety of deceptions for humorous purposes (April Fool’s gags are a leading example), but at some point a gag can have a pernicious effect on its target. However, I’m not sure I know the border between funny and illegal, and I doubt a teenager does either.

In this case, the gag had extra potential to cause mischief because student readers may have struggled to assign the appropriate level of cognitive authority to the web page printout. This, of courses, raises a complex issue about the ability of readers (especially students) to figure out what’s legitimate and what’s bogus online (and offline too). If anything, the website may have established too much credibility–it uses a fancy “Times” masthead, has a page layout that resembles a typical online page layout for newspapers (even down to the weather graphic in the upper left), has a byline and photo, and sounds internally credible. Perhaps it looks even more authoritative when printed out.

But it’s still just an Internet page, and it’s trivially easy to manufacture bogus Internet content. Perhaps students are getting this message, because the article says that students did suspect it was a prank. If so, I’m not sure why any punishment was required.

As for Cheezus, I’m pretty tolerant of websites doing stupid things, but this particular website bothers me from both a legal and ethical standpoint. From an ethical standpoint, the website is designed to capitalize and reinforce reader misperception without giving the reader any clue that this is a gag. I’m not saying this website goes too far, but I would be a lot more comfortable if the website was either less credible-looking or more outlandish. Otherwise, the website is practically leading its users into a problematic spot. Certainly I can see how a teenager author might be easily led astray.

From a legal standpoint, this website might qualify for 47 USC 230 because the defamatory content comes from a third party filling out a web form (see Carafano, Roommate.com, Prickett). But it might not. The website authors wrote salacious content that they knew was false. At some point, the website authors own the words they write.

Finally, the article raises a variety of other interesting dynamics, including the efficacy of Internet filtering at schools and the risks that we as teachers face for giving out low grades.

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