June 15, 2024

NPR Gets it Wrong on the Rutgers Tragedy: Cyberbullying is Unique

On Saturday, NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered ran a story by Elizabeth Blair called “Public Humiliation: It’s Not The Web, It’s Us” [transcript]. The story purported to examine the phenomenon of internet-mediated public humiliation in the context of last weeks tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who was secretly filmed having a sexual encounter in his dorm room. The video was redistributed online by his classmates who created it. The story is heartbreaking to many locals who have friends or family at Rutgers, especially to those of us in the technology policy community who are again reminded that so-called “cyberbullying” can be a life-or-death policy issue.

Thus, I was disappointed that the All Things Considered piece decided to view the issue through the lens of “public humiliation,” opening with a sampling of reality TV clips and the claim that they are significantly parallel to this past week’s tragedy. This is just not the case, for reasons that are widely known to people who study online bullying. Reality TV is about participants voluntarily choosing to expose themselves in an artificial environment, and cyberbullying is about victims being attacked against their will in the real world and in ways that reverberate even longer and more deeply than traditional bullying. If Elizabeth Blair or her editors had done the most basic survey of the literature or experts, this would have been clear.

The oddest choice of interviewees was Tavia Nyong’o, a professor of performance studies at New York University. I disagree with his claim that the TV show Glee has something significant to say about the topic, but more disturbing is his statement about what we should conclude from the event:

“[My students and I] were talking about the misleading perception, because there’s been so much advances in visibility, there’s no cost to coming out anymore. There’s a kind of equal opportunity for giving offense and for public hazing and for humiliating. We should all be able to deal with this now because we’re all equally comfortable in our own skins. Tragically, what Rutgers reveals is that we’re not all equally comfortable in our own skins.

I’m not sure if it’s as obvious to everyone else why this is absolutely backward, but I was shocked. What Rutgers reveals is, yet again, that new technologies can facilitate new and more creative ways of being cruel to each other. What Rutgers reveals is that although television may give us ways to examine the dynamics of privacy and humiliation, we have a zone of personal privacy that still matters deeply. What Rutgers tells us is that cyberbullying has introduced new dynamics into the way that young people develop their identities and deal with hateful antagonism. Nothing about Glee or reality TV tells us that we shouldn’t be horrified when someone secretly records and distributes video of our sexual encounters. I’m “comfortable in my own skin” but I would be mortified if my sexual exploits were broadcast online. Giving Nyong’o the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his quote was taken out of context, or perhaps he’s just coming from a culture at NYU that differs radically from the experience of somewhere like middle America, but I don’t see how Blair or her editors thought that this way of constructing the piece was justifiable.

The name of the All Things Considered piece was, “It’s Not The Web, It’s Us.” The reality is that it’s both. Humiliation and bullying would of course exist regardless of the technology, but new communications technologies change the balance. For instance, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has observed how digital technologies are uniquely invasive, persistent, and distributable. Pew has also pointed out (as have many other experts) that computer-mediated communications can often have the effect of disinhibition — making attackers comfortable with doing what they would otherwise never do in direct person-to-person contact. The solution may have more to do with us than the technology, but our solutions need to be informed by an understanding of how new technologies alter the dynamic.


  1. Seems like the NPR piece was talking about one angle of this horrible tragedy.

    While reality TV shows do have voluntarily participating people in it, for the viewers that is a moot point. It seems like the viewers watch the shows to enjoy somebody else’s troubles. The fact that the shows nurture such feelings among the viewers, was perhaps the point the NPR article was addressing.

  2. George Greene says

    Getting outed IS NOT humiliating.
    It is ESPECIALLY NOT humiliating in the context of a university as liberal as Rutgers,
    or (MORE relevantly) in the context OF A MUSIC department. It is one of the worst
    homophobic aspects of this culture that MANY people think the arts are already NOT
    a MANLY pursuit TO BEGIN with!! It is NO SURPRISE to ANYbody that a talented young male violinist is gay!

    The fact that this person, *IN 2010, AT A NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY*, thought
    that being gay was something to kill yourself over IS A FAR GREATER TRAGEDY
    (or even SIN) than the fact that he was outed. HE JUST PLAIN *SHOULD*NOT* have
    reacted that way!

    The fact that he felt like reacting that way ABSOLUTELY DOES IMPLY that he was ALREADY BEING ABUSED WITHIN the context of whatever OTHER relationships he may have had (e.g. WITH HIS OWN FAMILY) that may have caused him to fear that THEY could not forgive him for this. The people WHO FORCED HIM TO FEEL THIS BADLY
    about this aspect of himself are at FAR greater fault than the people who took this
    video, YET NObody is talking about THEM!!!!

    And I don’t think the person-to-person issue has anything to do with this.
    Would he have been less likely to kill himself if somebody had filmed him
    in person??

    • This comment risks doing what I think the original piece did — blame the victim. This seems terribly backward to me. I agree that the issue probably goes back much further than these two students and the video. This is a point that Dan Savage made on WHYY’s Radio Times (which did far better coverage in my opinion than All Things Considered):


      As far as disintermediation goes, I do think that the ability to spread something to anonymous others when you remain anonymous (even if you are mistaken about whether you can remain anonymous) changes the dynamics. Posting a video online for others to see is not the same as playing it for someone in person standing there while they watch — for the distributor, the viewer, or the victim.

    • Jack Fertig says

      So it’s his own fault because he has personal boundaries?

      What this article seems to dance around is the fact that from Jerry Springer to “reality shows” to Facebook and Craigslist to the omnipresence of porn so many people are willing to expose their most intimate details that we get too used to the idea that “privacy” and “discretion” are somehow quaint, obsolete concepts. As this comment asks would it be different if he’s been filmed in person misses the obvious point that he would not have made love in front of a camera.

      I don’t know that the idiots who did the webcasting were deeply malicious or thought it was “just a prank” but there are guys who make the same rationalization for rape. What they did was a profound violation and I hope they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Yes, obviously the omnipresence of homophobia fuels the shame and terror that drove the poor boy to suicide, but that’s no excuse for the violation that triggered the event. And besides, had he simply decided to prosecute the webcasters for violation of his privacy they would face the same criminal charges.

  3. Teen suicide rates are on a longterm downward trend. So you can disseminate intensely private things to a much wider audience, but you can disseminate the results of such vicious behavior more widely as well.