A couple years ago, an honor student at a conservative private college in Kentucky decided to do what a growing number of students are doing these days: use his Facebook account to come out of the closet and tell others he is gay.
For his openness, he was expelled from this college which had a policy of not accepting gay students.
At another university, a sophomore posted pictures of himself getting plastered at a weekend party. That would have been okay had it not been for the fact he was under the legal drinking age in Ohio and the school did not allow students to hold leadership positions on campus if they were drinking illegally.
He never became editor.
These are just two of many examples of young people who have chosen to live their lives out loud. Throwing caution to the wind, the typical 20-something who has grown up in the age of chatrooms and interactive media has embraced social media sites like Facebook to disclose just about everything they think is either shocking, amusing, or titillating about himself or herself.
And this phenomenon starts early, as the tragic cases of teen suicide over the practice of “sexting” have shown the past couple of years.
I began discovering this lack of concern about privacy a few years ago and have been asking my own college students about it ever since. Originally I asked it in the context of a class I teach on communication ethics. We deal with a section on individual privacy vs. government surveillance, which is a topic that I find somewhat scary because I’ve always wondered how widespread the misuse of government surveillance might be on Americans.
Too many blank stares
Citing some examples of such abuse, I ask my students if they aren’t a bit concerned, too. In return, I usually get silence and some blank stares. So I’m thinking that these are the same students who are willingly giving up their own privacy by self-disclosing about themselves to virtual strangers online, so why should they feel concerned about someone else invading their privacy? And apparently that is true. They aren’t.
So then I ask them if they aren’t concerned about disclosing too much information about themselves in Facebook. Again, a lot of blank stares and silence. I infer from this reaction that either they haven’t ever thought about this as a problem, or they think I’m out of a prehistoric generation that keeps too many secrets about themselves.
A third possibility is that they trust the privacy filters on Facebook as much as they seem to trust faceless government officials who controls the means to surveillance.
Who’s to blame
When I tell them about what happened to the Kentucky student or the kid at the Ohio university, they seem shocked. They usually get on the case of the administrations at these two schools, debating their policies they think got the students into trouble. I remind them, however, it was the students, who knew these policies, who got themselves into trouble by living their lives out loud.
Because of these encounters with my own students, I was surprised to see a story in the New York Times recently that revealed the results of a survey done by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley showing this thinking may be shifting among young people.
The study, funded by the Pew Internet Project, found that over half of these young adults surveyed are now more worried about their own privacy they were in 2005. That figures is about equal of the number of people their parents’ age or older who are concerned about their privacy.
Just as surprising is people in their 20s are taking more control over their “digital reputations” than are their older counterparts. They delete threatening posts and are starting to limit information about themselves. This finding could, however, be the result of younger people knowing how to engage those digital filters more than older adults who spend less time with the social media.
Possibly because many Facebook users are finding the built-in filters aren’t foolproof, many young people are all of a sudden worried about those party pix or those tell-all announcements of their sexual orientation.
Young people are also hearing, from older people like me, about how college administrators and employers are tracking Facebook and MySpace to find out more information about individuals applying for leadership posts in college or jobs beyond graduation. So that’s starting to give them pause.
Learning to distrust filters
The Times article, written by Laura M. Holson, talks about Sam Jackson, a junior at Yale who began a blog when he was 15 and who has already interned at Google. Jackson said he had learned not to trust any social network to keep his information private.
“If I go back and look, there are things four years ago I would not say today,” he told the Times. “I am much more self-censoring. I’ll try to be honest and forthright, but I am conscious now who I am talking to.”
Says Holson, “He has learned to live out loud mostly by trial and error and has come up with his own theory: concentric layers of sharing. His Facebook account, which he has had since 2005, is strictly personal. “
“I don’t want people to know what my movie rentals are,” Jackson said. “If I am sharing something, I want to know what’s being shared with others.”
Thirteen years ago I was in Dallas talking to the online editor (a new concept then) of a newspaper I once worked for, The Dallas Morning News. The trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was starting up in Denver, and we were discussing how the story was being covered in the press.
The Morning News had just come under fire for releasing details of a private conversation McVeigh had with his attorney wherein McVeigh said he had chosen the time of day (9:01 on April 19, 1995) for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building to “increase the body count.”
The story went national and appeared shortly before the jury in the federal case was to be selected. The fact the details were published immediately in the paper’s online edition had made it more troubling.
The computer disk containing the McVeigh interview was leaked to the Morning News by a member of the defnese team who said he didn’t know the interview was on it. He said he was providing the disk to the paper because of some FBI records it contained.
As for McVeigh, he now told his lawyer he now had zero chance of getting any sympathetic jurors or getting favorable treatment from the judge, since the story had gone national with the Dallas paper’s Web edition.
While none of the Denver jurors would have had reason to see the print edition of the Dallas newspaper, they did have ready access to the online edition and McVeigh’s incendiary comment.
A hazard of the job
My editor friend told me that was one of the hazards of his job with the online edition: The time cushion between the actual event being covered and its publication was gone. It had disappeared in the expectation that the story would go immediately into the Web edition. There was no time for
reflection about its possible result in swaying potential jurors in a case where the whole trial had been moved out of state to minimize any influence.
The concept of reporting that is done with such blazing speed is what I referred to first in the mid-1990s as Turbonews. It’s even faster today.
Admittedly, it is impossible to sympathize with Timothy McVeigh. I covered the Oklahoma City bombing myself as a reporter and was outraged by the devastation wrought by this man who was ultimately convicted and executed.
But, like my editor friend in Dallas, I do worry about the disappearing cushion of time that reporters now face in such potential influential stories as the leaked McVeigh interview. He had not yet been tried when this story came out in the Dallas paper. The appearance of the story could have delayed the trial or even possibly resulted in a defense motion to dismiss for prejudicial pre-trial publicity.
In this case, it is hard to envision the latter happening but — in a less emotionally charged case — it might have.
I also worry about how stories meant for local audiences now automatically become national stories because of the Web. That is especially so when a local story can have a troublesome effect on an event happening in another part of the country.
Pressure of competition
A related worry is an editor’s rush to judgement not just because of the speed that Web journalism publication mandates, but because of pressure to publish now because of a related story another newspaper may be publishing clear across the country.
While this concern is especially acute these days because everyone has access to online editions of newspapers, the problem even pre-dates the creation of the Web.
For example, in 1979, an editor for the Montana newspaper, The Missoulian, felt a rush to judgement on a highly sensitive story involving a young local woman who had been murdered in Washington, D.C. The victim’s name was Cindy Herbig, a star at her Missoula high school
who had gone to Radcliffe for a semester, then dropped out of sight and became a prostitute in the nation’s capital. Her murder was one of the brutal hazards of her profession.
The editor, Rod Deckert, received word of Cindy’s death one night from a local funeral home official who was skimpy with details for obvious reasons. So Deckert began exchanging phone calls with a Washington Post reporter who was preparing a big “fallen angel” story for the Post that would appear in a couple days.
Read it here, or there
For Deckert, the problem was that residents of Missoula could buy the Washington Post from local dealers, and the Post planned to amplify distribution of the story through its national news service to media everywhere.
So Deckert had to make a whole bunch of decisions in very quick succession. Although The Missoulian was a hometown paper and had an added mission to treat Missoula residents with sensitivity and respect, he knew the Post’s story could be read by anyone in town. Even had he wanted to present Cindy’s death as an obituary and go light on details, how would readers react in reading the details in a far-off metro daily with no such value-added mission? What might they think of their own newspaper’s covering-up the details?
More sensitive treatment
Deckert chose the option of publishing the details, over the Herbig family’s objections, but doing so in a more moderate way than the Post was doing. It opened itself up for the ensuing firestorm from local readers and advertisers, published some 150 letters to the editor in the days to come, and reserved the final word in a letter from Cindy’s parents.
Deckert at least had a couple days to make these decisions. Had this event happened today, he would have had to make his decisions immediately because of the online presence of newspapers like The Washington Post.
Like oil and water
I have often told my college journalism students that accuracy and speed often mix about as well as oil and water. Given the difficulty of obtaining the best obtainable version of the truth, it is amazing the news media get it right as often as they do. But the pressure that reporters and editors are under as a result of online media has made that job even harder for those who would separate fact from rumor.
As tantalizing and ubiquitious as rumors are on the Web, they too often fall short of the truth.
Any way you slice it, that is bad news.
I’m still relishing the vivid memories of Berlin last Nov. 9 when 100,000 of us stood out in a cold drizzle to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There aren’t many experiences to match that, although one of the events during the month-long celebration, dubbed the Festival of Freedom, came close.
That was seeing how a bunch of creative Germans put together a website called Berlintwitterwall (www.berlintwitterwall.com) and invited people from around the world to tweet about other walls of oppression that must come down. You can still see a sample of the tweets by going to that site, and some are extremely moving.
The site had more than100 tweets posted in the first 24 hours. Then momentum really picked up and, before long, there were thousands. The site pictures the East Side Gallery, a famous stretch of the wall that still stands and is painted with murals. Against this wall, the messages appear as they stroll in a continuous stream from right to left.
Visitors can also click on photo icons to see pictures of pieces of the Domino Wall, about 1,000 pieces of 8-foot tall styrofoam painted with messages of peace by students, celebrities and politicians. The Domino Wall snaked nearly a mile along the old wall line and were toppled during the celebrations on Nov. 9.
China Bans Site
So popular was the site to people in countries with oppressive policies, that some of these governments — China’s in particular — wound up blocking its citizens from logging on to Berlintwitterwall. But not before many Chinese citizens risked a lot to post their protests against their own government
The twitterwall site was the brainchild of the Kulture Projekte Berlin, the non-profit arts organization that was called upon to add their creative minds to this Festival of Freedom, 20 years after the fall of the big wall.
“We got a lot of worldwide attention, so naturally the Chinese people have seen it as a way to voice their opinions about internet censorship in their own country,” Carsten Hein, the project coordinator, told German newspaper, The Local.
Particularly troublesome to Chinese authorities was the request by the Berlin Twitter Wall for users to describe, “which walls in the rest of the world should, in their opinion, now fall.”
I’ve been a journalist for a lot of years, and I have never understood why anyone can still think that censorship does more good than harm. Doesn’t the very idea of censorship infer strongly that government leaders are insecure about their own program, and/or that they have something to hide, and/or they think the people are too stupid to figure it out for themselves?
So kudos to this application of the social media which allowed the world, in this case, to voice its opposition to oppression of all kinds.
A Sample of Tweets
Here are some of the actual tweets from the cyberwall at this site which is still up and running:
* “One day China will see their walls of oppression come tumbling down, just as the Berlin Wall did.”
*”Some people think that the U.S.-Mexican border is another wall of oppression.”
* “The Berlin Wall is a symbol of how far some societies will go in dividing themselves from tolerance.”
* “The Berlin Twitter Wall has been great-firewalled in China.”
*”The 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Wall shows the struggle that freedom of thought faces.”
* “Without the fall of the Wall, I would have never found my friend in the East.”
So a lot of pent-up frustrations by everyday Chinese citizens managaed to get out before the government clampdown. But China isn’t the only country attempting to restrict access to the Web.
A Dirty Dozen
In a report released last March, called “Enemies of the Internet”, the group listed 12 nations that it said have systematically restricted their populations from accessing online news and information deemed “undesirable.”
The nations cited were Burma, North Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Tunisia, and China.
The report asserted these countries not only restrict access to Web sites, but also persecute some computer users for what they post online.
Despite these attempts at censorship, one of the great advantage of the Internet is that oppressive governments around the world find it harder to keep messages of freedom like these away from their people who are so hungry to read, hear, and see them.
Often, as in the case of China and Berlintwitterwall.com, some protests reach the rest of the world before the government is able to shut the door.