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March 29th, 2010
Web slurs target teen suicide victim
Community upset over nasty, anonymous online comments; incident exposes a dark side of cyberspaceFrom staff and wire reports
Read more by staff and wire services reports
A community reeling from the suicide of a popular high school senior turned its sorrow to outrage March 26 over a practice known as “trolling,” in which derogatory, hurtful comments are posted online against a person.
In this instance, a tribute site created for Alexis Pilkington, 17, of West Islip High School in New York was the target of insulting messages after her death.
“I think it’s horrible. It’s vicious. It’s cruel. It upsets me as a parent,” Lorraine Kolar said as she left a memorial service for Pilkington.
Classmates, relatives, and friends were incensed over what they called creepy, insensitive messages about Pilkington, many posted anonymously and also appearing on other internet sites since her death.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Cathi Musemeci, a close friend of the family. “I think it’s horrible. Let the girl die in peace.”
“Trolling is part of the dark side of cyberspace,” said Anne Collier, co-director of the Salt Lake City-based Connectsafely.org, a forum about safety issues on the internet and social web sites.
“It’s not necessarily tied to any school activity,” she said. “It’s quite anonymous and random and is usually seen as aggressive, egregious cruelty on the internet. The people who sit behind computers and do this are known as trolls.”
Pilkington received harassing internet messages even before she killed herself March 21. Her parents and other relatives insist she had been troubled for some time. They don’t believe the messages were a major factor in her death.
“It had nothing to do with that,” said Musemeci. “Lexi was in a lot of pain. She was hurting.”
Still, Formspring.me—a social networking site that was flooded with mean-spirited messages and graphic images—has been the target of much of the town’s anger.
About two dozen West Islip High School students sported white T-shirts March 26 painted with neon green and orange lettering declaring “Boycott Formspring and gathered petitions outside the school.
“We just want it off the internet,” said organizer Billy Crawford, a West Islip senior. “If you have anything to say to somebody, there’s no reason you shouldn’t say it to their face.”
A Formspring spokeswoman said the company has changed its service in response to the incident. Users now can decide whether to decline anonymous questions or allow them. They also can opt to allow them only from a user who is logged into the system, said spokeswoman Margit Wennmachers.
Some Facebook postings, which are not anonymous, also came under scrutiny for negative comments posted about the girl after her death. Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the company does not condone cyber bullying, and he said Facebook would disable accounts that are found to be intimidating others.
Frank Stallone, deputy chief of detectives for the Suffolk police, said the department’s computer crimes unit was investigating. He said it is often difficult to prosecute such cases, though.
“Sometimes being offensive or crude doesn’t always amount to doing something illegal,” he said. Also, he added, “trolling” is difficult to prosecute, because offenders “could come from any place in the world.”