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The wild web

Social networking sites are uncharted territory for cheating, identity theft and other mischief. How should universities address the growing possibilities for problems on the new frontier?

By TIM JOHNSON | OCT 06 2008
The wild web - Image 1
Illustration: Wesley Bates

The past 15 months have been an education for Dalhousie University.

The first lesson came a year ago August, when a woman claimed that canines were being killed in the school’s science labs and started a group called “Stop Dogs and Puppies from being murdered at Dalhousie University” on the massively popular social networking site Facebook.

Despite the university’s public declarations that no one at Dalhousie had used dogs for research in years, word spread like a virus, and the group acquired tens of thousands of members in just a few days.

A very different controversy swept campus last December. Someone (it’s still not clear who was responsible) assumed the identity of a Dalhousie engineering professor and posted a video on YouTube that included images of the man’s wife and daughters, music borrowed from a pornographic film and written commentary suggesting the professor was acting as a pimp for his family.

The video also had racist anti-Muslim overtones. It captured national headlines as a possible hate crime after it was e-mailed to Dalhousie students. YouTube complied with Dalhousie’s request to have the video removed.

“These incidents opened a lot of eyes, all over campus,” says Ryan McNutt, the university’s first new-media officer. “I think it’s important that universities and other organizations have somebody who can understand this new frontier, and can help determine strategies to deal with it.” Mr. McNutt’s position was created as a direct response to the online controversies.

The wild web - Image 2
Dalhousie’s new-media officer Ryan McNutt was hired following a couple of online incidents. Photo: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

While the Internet is nothing new, its latest social incarnation, popularly known as Web 2.0, has introduced a brave new world of opportunities and potential pitfalls for Canadian universities.

Social networking sites where users create the content – from Facebook and MySpace to video-sharing websites like YouTube to blogs and wikis – have ushered in new forms of and forums for cheating, bullying, identity theft, slander and other mischief and malfeasance.

It’s an issue still in its infancy, and there’s little in the way of academic literature to document these kinds of incidents, making it difficult to comprehend the scope and seriousness.

But a survey of newspaper headlines reveals a growing problem. Last winter, Ryerson University was in the news when a first-year engineering student organized a Facebook group, an online bulletin board where classmates shared answers. Ryerson said this amounted to cheating, while the student – who was eventually punished but not expelled – maintained that the group was nothing more than a library study group taken online.

There is also the potential for slander and bullying. At Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon, an unproven allegation of rape on Facebook went viral when bloggers picked up the story.

In the U.K., an investigation by Times Higher Education found that students were routinely using social networking sites to badmouth their professors, calling them everything from “useless” to a “waste-of-space-bitch.”

Anonymous gossip and slander is becoming commonplace on sites like JuicyCampus.com, with its pages for dozens of U.S. universities and discussion threads on, for example, the “biggest cocaine users” at Southern Methodist University and “creepy” guys at Cornell. A university officer complained to Google that the site was a “virtual bathroom wall” for abusive, degrading and hateful speech.

Not to be outdone, Facebook introduced an application called the “Honesty Box.” It allows users to send unsigned comments that reveal “what people really think of you.”

Disturbingly, MySpace seems to have played a role in at least two deaths – one in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, when a 13-year-old girl hung herself after reportedly receiving cruel messages from a neighbour’s mother posing as a 16-year-old boy, and the other in Long Island, New York, after several drunken young men rushed to defend the honour of a female friend who’d been threatened with rape from a MySpace page. It turned out to be a hoax, and they were greeted with gunshots.

High school action

In Canada, many of the documented cyber-bullying and slander incidents have taken place in high schools. A Brandon, Manitoba teen may be the first person to be charged with personation related to social networking, after he impersonated one of his teachers on Facebook. In Edmonton, 24 junior-high school students were expelled or suspended for posting profiles in the guise of two teachers on the website Nexopia.

Faye Mishna recently surveyed more than 2,000 students in Grades 6 to 11 from 30 schools in the Toronto area (some of whom will soon be striding onto the quadrangles of Canadian universities). In their previous three months of online activity, 21 percent said they had been bullied, 35 percent admitted to bullying, 11 percent reported being threatened, and 18 percent said that someone else had pretended to be them.

Dr. Mishna, a professor and associate dean of research at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, says some students who are aggressive online will carry these practices into their postsecondary years.

“The research in traditional bullying shows that it is not necessarily juvenile behaviour,” she says, adding that the new medium can greatly amplify the message. “Traditional bullying might happen in front of two people or a classroom or a school, and that’s humiliating enough. This can happen in front of the whole world.”

Determining a university’s proper involvement in students’ social networking activities is a tricky matter. It is wrapped up in the question of where does a student’s private space end and where does public institutional space begin. In other words: when is an online matter university business, and when is it simply none of their business?

“It’s really easy in terms of your physical campus. You step off the road onto the campus sidewalk and, boom, you’ve changed from city to campus,” says Bonnie Neuman, vice president, student services, at Dalhousie. “In the online world, of course, it is not as easy, and the line is becoming more and more blurred and therefore requiring more and more judgment.”

It’s clear, though, that a school can go too far. There are stories of U.S. colleges that actively monitor online activities, with chilling results.

In one highly publicized incident, Pennsylvania’s Millersville University denied a young woman an education degree after it discovered a MySpace photo of the 25-year-old drinking from a beer cup while wearing a pirate hat; the university said the photo on her MySpace page was unprofessional and accused her of promoting underage drinking.

A school or university may be justified in using some oversight to protect its reputation, but it should not aggressively monitor students, some experts say.

“If you’re just randomly monitoring to see what’s going on, in the real world we’d think of that as a police state, and there’s no reason to think that there’s anything different about the online world,” says Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology at the University of Ottawa law faculty. “If I knew that the police or the state or my principal or my professor was watching everything I did online, then my whole intellectual privacy would be compromised.”

Dr. Kerr advises institutions to develop clear rules and expectations for online behaviour, saying this will help them avoid problems. Over the last 10 years, he says, there has been a dawning realization that “of course we regulate these spaces like we regulate others,” whether we’re completely effective or not.

At Canadian universities, there seems to be a lack of clarity about the appropriate steps to take with cyberspace policy. The example of Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina University College) is instructive.

Last March, the Nanaimo Daily News reported that as long as students didn’t cheat, the institution would take a hands-off approach to students’ online activities. But when University Affairs reached Patrick Ross, vice-president, student services, in May of this year, he said that’s not necessarily the case. The institution would investigate allegations of cyber-bullying within its existing code of conduct, he said. And it may consider reviewing its current code to “beef [it] up” with web-relevant clauses, although currently there aren’t any plans to do so.

Students don’t like them

Even when codes of conduct don’t cover online behaviour, they are unpopular with students. The Canadian Federation of Students voted unanimously this year to condemn virtually all non-academic behaviour codes. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations is uneasy with them, too.

“I don’t think we should base any university policies on the assumption that, generally speaking, students are bad,” says Zach Churchill, its national director. He says he could accept policies written in the spirit of protecting students.

Ryerson University recently unveiled a new non-academic code of conduct which, among other things, forbids students to “use computer equipment on campus to download, distribute or send offensive, discriminatory, and/or harassing material.”

The University of Ottawa, on the other hand, recently withdrew its draft code of behaviour, which student leaders had fiercely opposed as an attempt to stifle dissent. Last spring when the code was under discussion, the university had no firm plan to directly refer to students’ online behaviour in the code – and no plan not to.

“It seems to me that universities are just starting to grapple with this across the continent,” Bruce Feldthusen, U of Ottawa’s acting vice president, university relations, said at the time. “I think it’s going to become obvious to everyone that we have to talk about it. Whether it ends up in the policy or not, I wouldn’t predict.”

Meanwhile at Université Laval, Jean-François Forgues, director of technology and learning, says a university should take an official stance towards online behaviour, not simply to protect itself but also to fulfill its role in developing student character. “We have a responsibility to teach engineering to an engineering student, but we also have responsibility for how he will behave in society.”

Université Laval, unlike many universities, does have a code of conduct governing online behaviour that lists disallowed activities, from distributing chain letters to making abusive comments.

For its part, Dalhousie has not added explicit online references to its code of conduct, despite being twice burned. Dalhousie deals with situations on a case-by-case basis.

“There is absolutely no way to write down and predetermine everything [that young people] are going to come up with. It is always a judgment call, because you never know what the next phone call is going to bring,” says Dalhousie student services vice-president Dr. Neuman.

However, Eric Roher, who counsels school boards and postsecondary institutions on these matters, agrees with U of Ottawa’s Dr. Kerr that universities should make things as clear as possible from the outset. Mr. Roher, a partner and national leader in the education law group with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, says that cyber-bullying policies are now routine with school boards and that provisions have been written into Ontario’s education act. Relying on old policies just isn’t good enough any more.

“Universities absolutely need to have specific language around the appropriate use of electronic communication,” says Mr. Roher. Codes of behaviour should cover everything from use of websites to cell phones in class to text messaging, but they also should take into account the rapid changes in today’s technological landscape.

He advises universities to refer to information and communication technologies in a general way, and use the words “such as” or “including” to point to specific ones.

For professors, the new potential for derogatory comments about them broadcast to a huge audience is of particular concern. “Every new technology creates a new set of possibilities. And these social networking technologies create potentially dramatic changes, not in the kind of behaviour but in the ability to have your behaviour more visible to lots of people,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

In some cases this may become a matter for the courts, but not always. Simply being teased online is not grounds for a lawsuit or a charge. “You’ve got to have a bit of a thick skin,” says Mr. Roher. “What I often say to educators is, ‘Being pissed off is not the test.’”

Rather, it’s a matter of weighing protection for freedom of expression in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against issues of safety and security. In cases of libel, Canadian courts have ruled that sometimes a teacher’s reputation trumps freedom of expression.

While a cyber-bullying case has yet to reach a Canadian courtroom, Mr. Roher believes that Canada will follow the lead of U.S. courts and view students’ sarcastic and even critical comments as protected speech. The test is whether there’s a substantial disruption in the learning environment and in applying this test, courts often seek out whether there’s a link to the school, says Mr. Roher.

“I think Canadian courts will draw the line at hate speech – if the language is homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, if it’s uttering death threats, if you’re using sexually threatening language, this language will probably not be protected.”

Back at Dalhousie, Dr. Neuman’s faith in students remains unshaken despite the recent incidents, and she has hope for the future. The derogatory YouTube video picked up far and wide “was very rare,” she says. “We were all quite surprised by that. It’s not at all indicative of behaviour of students at Dalhousie,” she says.

“And I don’t think it’s indicative of the behaviour of this generation.”

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  1. jb / October 19, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    This article is a perfect example of what the article itself claims to attack. It’s little more than shallow, one-sided, fear mongering, using a small handful of anecdotes to insinuate the dangers of a broad category of human communication. The premise is similar to suggesting that the cell phone is a deadly force of evil because it’s been used to trigger bombs. It would be laughed out of a respectable print publication.

    But on the web, it’s able to inspire worldwide controversy and outrage, which equates to lots of advertising impressions.

    This is a paragon of propagandistic hypocrisy. Kudos!

  2. Eddie / October 28, 2008 at 12:41 am

    I wholeheartedly disagree with with you jb, your analogy to cellphones is a tough one to swallow; it’s a lot easier to commit libel online than it is to build a bomb and then figure out how to set it off with a cellphone. The former anyone with an internet connection, a grudge, and 2 minutes can commit, and spread the message to tens of thousands.

    What I believe you’ve failed to grasp that the article speaks about is how hurtful abusive cyber-acts can be. As a Dalhousie student, it hurts me when someone falsely accuses the university I attend of hurting dogs and cats, then refuses to actually have a discussion about it. People from around the world would see her group, and join believing her accusations were true, and failing to properly research the claims. The group was an absolute disservice to both the university and all the students who choose to attend it. What would have been your suggestion, let it continue to spread false information?

    I also question your “advertising” claim on two counts. First, the ones who stand the most to benefit from these abusive cyber-attacks are the abusers. Secondly, what, did you think the internet was free?

    – Eddie

  3. Jeff Dionne / October 17, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Web 2.0 has the potential to harm others, and it always will. It is the nature of the beast.

    I feel the importance of teaching young children about “digital citizenship” and “netiquette” is becoming clear. That’s one of the reasons I created PikiFriends. It’s our responsibility as educators to include teaching about Web 2.0 in our curricula, as a very high percentage of young people (a.k.a. the digital youth) have profiles on social networking sites.

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