Cyber Smearing

Not long ago, a Los Angeles woman became alarmed when strange men began hanging around her apartment, leering at her and making suggestive comments. Finally, she discovered what they were looking for: They had been lured to her home by a series of pornographic Internet advertisements. The awful truth was that the woman had not placed the ads. She was a victim of a twisted revenge scheme that only the Internet could make possible. The ads purported to describe the woman's kinky sexual fantasies—and they gave out her name and address. The ads were posted by a man named Gary Dellapenta, whom the woman had met at church. She had refused to go out with him—but Dellapenta wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He was so persistent that the woman finally asked the elders of the church to eject him from the congregation, which they did. Those Internet ads were Dellapenta's twisted form of revenge. Fortunately, Dellapenta was tracked down and prosecuted. But his actions were hardly unique. Christian Wolf, an attorney who specializes in Internet issues, notes that, increasingly, people are deciding to settle scores, real or imagined, by "spreading false or misleading information on the Internet." For instance, a 15-year-old named Alexander Lunney discovered that someone was sending threatening e-mails under his name to his neighbors. There are two factors that virtually invite people to abuse the Internet this way: easy access and anonymity. As Wolf put it, "the Internet has made everyone a publisher." Anyone can post something on the Net—true or false, real, or outrageous. In addition to easy access, the Internet provides anonymity. A now-famous New Yorker cartoon tells it all. The cartoon features one dog telling another dog that on the Internet "no one knows you're a dog." In other words, no one knows who you are. This combination of access and anonymity can be volatile. It reduces our sense of accountability, and it can easily loosen moral and cultural restraints that normally rein in rude and vicious behavior. Just as people are more likely to be offensive while making an anonymous telephone call than when talking face-to-face, so people are more likely to make rude statements sitting alone before a computer screen. Centuries ago, Augustine preached against the dangers of what he called "privatio," best translated as "privacy." Augustine knew that people acting in isolation and anonymity are more likely to give in to their worst impulses—a judgment vindicated by the stuff we see online today. The Internet is here to stay, but we can still avoid the pitfalls it presents. If we become aware of acts of cyber-smearing, we must act swiftly. These kinds of crimes can be prosecuted. We all appreciate our privacy. But we must guard against what Augustine called "privatio"--the isolation and anonymity that breaks down people's normal inhibitions. We must take care to nurture those forms of social interaction that increase rather than decrease our sense of accountability to one another. The Internet is convenient but we cannot allow it to take the place of face-to-face contact. Doing things off-line is one of the best ways to keep all of us in line.


Chuck Colson


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