May 25, 2006
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.
"The website authors wrote salacious content that they knew was false."
Interesting proposition. Can content be false if, when it is written, it is about no one in particular?
One could argue that the real "content," that is the subject for the various predicates provided by the website developers, is provided by the users of the site when they fill in the name and locations.
Then again, the real content seems to appear once the info submitted combines with what's already there. The line of demarcation is the same as in Carafano, but seems to be slid much further over toward the website provider.
Posted by: Evan at May 25, 2006 03:04 PM
Libel and the American Teenager
I picked up this story and was amazed at the attention given the web site and not the unimaginably stupid kid who throught to distribute it at school. I've been to websites that allowed me to get "married" by entering two names, to print pictures of myself with celebrities or even print out my own official "badge," and yet I've never been sued for alimony by the online bride, tried to sell my photo with Britney to the Post nor tried to use my badge to confiscate pot from the local teens.
Give me a break. The site doesn't advise to "print and distribute." Saying the site is leading users to be irresponsible is like saying gun manufacturers are encouraging drive-bys. The 14 year old did something utterly ridiculous and damaging to the teacher--the site didn't do that.
Posted by: Michael Mayes at May 26, 2006 09:29 AM
As a 56 year old ex-Marine Viet Nam combat vet, even I find this action ludicrous. For Gods' sake, this nation needs to lighten up a bit. What used to be harmless jokes, nowadays have become actionable offenses to further line lawyers pockets. If you lawyers and teachers want to persue something, how about finding a way to keep kids out of porn sites, and drug dealers off the streets. Stay out of the practicle jokes field. These are dynamically generated urls and ore only seen by the person clicking on them. By retyping a string of x's in place of your name in the url and clicking go, the url is gone, it is stored nowhere. If it is posted on a forum, that's another story. But, at the bottom of these stories there is usually a disclaimer that the above story is ficticious. The friend fills in the name, not the website.
No. Lightening up on "practical jokes" is by far the wrong thing to do. I'm 16 and I'm in high school, and even I know how incredibly unintelligent my fellow classmates are. They do it to themselves. They're the ones who make the choices. They're the ones who choose to do illegal drugs, drink alcohol, and engage in sexual activity. They apparently don't understand the consequences of what they do. I am honestly ashamed of being a teenager, even though I can't help it. If you've ever heard a conversation between two teenage kids, it's truly mind numbing. I believe that listening to their unintelligent babble has actually sapped some of my intelligence. My point is this: if we lighten up on teenagers for making bad choices, it will worsen the situation. We'll essentially be telling them that it's okay to insult their teachers and disobey their parents. We'll be telling them that they can do whatever they want without major consequence. This is wrong. We need to go the other way. Crack down on underage drinking, illegal drugs, and even the "practical jokes" (not really practical). I am absolutely sick and tired of seeing unintelligent teens walking around the world, completely in tune to their own needs. We need to send teens a message that says "get with the picture"
Posted by: Andy (Intelligent Teenager) at November 17, 2006 11:19 AM