Whether this is actually the person making the harassing Facebook posts described is unknown.
UPDATE, 2/25/2011: The Facebook page of the person claiming to be "Paul Nelson" is gone. I contacted someone who knows the real Paul Nelson and he told me he would relay the information to him. If this was, as I suspect, a case of someone fabricating an identity by stealing information from publicly-available sources, and the person whose identity was stolen was a member of the armed forces, I hope the full investigative power of the federal government was brought to bear against the identity thief.
Consequently, I am removing the standalone pictures of Paul Nelson,and am blurring his images in the fake Facebook profile.
On Wednesday a girl in a school district about eighty miles from here killed herself as an apparent result of harassment and bullying.
Now, teen suicide is, tragically, nothing new. It's not something that came about as a result of Facebook, or MySpace, or instant messaging, or the Internet, or heavy metal music. Nor are harassment and bullying products of the modern world. Back in my day harassment took the form of anonymous letters and phone calls, back before caller ID and anonymous call rejection and even star sixty-nine. Bullying was generally done through threats or violence against the person or their property.
The Internet didn't bring about harassment or bullying. But it certainly has made doing these things from the cover of anonymity that much easier.
Well, apparent anonymity. No one is truly anonymous on the Internet. If the right people want to trace you, they will, no matter how many fake Facebook profiles or proxy walls you hide behind.
Take, for example, the person calling himself Paul Nelson.
(Photo removed. See 2/25/2011 update, above.)
The person in this photo is most likely not named "Paul Nelson."* The person in this photo is most likely not the person posting as "Paul Nelson." It is, however, a very interesting and important photo, for several reasons.
I don't know the girl who killed herself. I had to look up her location on a map. It's right on the very edge of what anyone could reasonably call "Northeastern Pennsylvania," practically out of the coverage area for the local news. I might never have heard of her if it had not been for someone I knew in high school "liking" a memorial page that was set up on the day of her death. I noticed this on Facebook, and I became curious. I clicked through. I did some basic Googling, and came up with a disturbing top result for her name, an apparent example of online bullying.
The truth is a little more complicated and even more disturbing. The result was for a website where people can anonymously pose questions to specific individuals. The question being asked was very offensive - and it turns out the person being asked was one of this girl's best friends. But it gets weirder: the person who posed the disturbing question was the girl herself. For more insight into this, see this post: danah boyd | apophenia » Digital Self-Harm and Other Acts of Self-Harassment. Danah Boyd has written several other pieces on teens and bullying. This one investigates why so many teens don't perceive bullying as bullying. (One poster on the memorial site described the bullying and harassment as "kids being kids.") Her whole blog looks promising as a resource for someone who wants to learn more about dealing with bullying and harassment.
Back to the issue of Paul Nelson.
I've never really spent much time on a memorial site, a place where friends gather to share their thoughts and memories and strangers come to offer condolences. Or, in some cases, to harass and troll everyone else at the memorial site.
I've never seen that before. But here it was. Message from a friend, message of condolence from a stranger, another friend sharing thoughts, and then a picture of an aborted fetus with the caption "I BELIEVE THE CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE - JUST NOT THIS ONE." More messages from friends, more messages from strangers, then a posting of a YouTube video called "LOL YOU'RE DEAD." And then this guy.
A lot of his posts and comments have apparently been deleted. As of last night, he had one telling everybody who was getting upset by what he was doing to calm down, Facebook wouldn't do anything about him anyway, and neither would the police, since he was out of state. "This isn't my first rodeo," he said, implying that this isn't the first time he's harassed and trolled a stranger's memorial site.
He's not the only one, either. At least half a dozen different, fake profiles have popped up with people posting obscene or harassing comments, pictures, and videos to this memorial site. One of them was traced to a person in England. These people apparently have no connection to the subject of the memorial site. Instead they have simply picked up the news of a memorial site from friends, or from a groupthink site like 4chan, whose anonymous members banded together last year to harass an eleven-year-old girl and her family.
But, remember, there is no true anonymity on the Internet. As that bastion of scholarship, cracked.com, pointed out in its article "5 Wacky Internet Pranks That Can Get You Jail Time," an anonymous 4chan poster was able to get into Sarah Palin's Yahoo accounts. Now, regardless of what you think of Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her preference for conducting state government business on her personal Yahoo email account rather than on, like, state government email accounts, what this anonymous 4chan poster did, from behind the added safety of a proxy wall, was illegal. And he got caught. And his anonymity evaporated like the illusion it was. (His name is David Kernell, by the way.)
Which brings us back to "Paul Nelson."
(Photo removed. See 2/25/2011 update, above.)
"Paul Nelson" most likely isn't this guy's name. The picture above probably isn't of anyone named "Paul Nelson,"* nor is it likely a picture of the person posting harassing messages to the memorial site. But it's definitely a picture of somebody. Somebody whose picture is being used as part of a Facebook account that is being used to harass people at a memorial site.
That's identity theft.
Now, I know jack shit about military decorations and insignia. The colored ribbon on the chest of the fellow in the photo could mean that he's a newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant straight out of ROTC. Or maybe it means he's a highly decorated sniper with a dozen confirmed kills. I have no idea. But what I do know is that if the person posting as "Paul Nelson" is not the person in that photo, then the person posting as "Paul Nelson" has no right to represent himself as the wearer of those ribbons, whatever they mean.
That's Stolen Valor.
Now, we can throw in all the usual stuff about harassment and wire fraud, and whatever. The "Paul Nelson"s of this world know that a site like Facebook can't be bothered to police every interaction between members, and that state and local police and the FBI probably aren't going to prioritize any investigation into what they're doing. So they'll continue to post their images of aborted fetuses, and their images of dead girls with captions like "SHE'LL STILL BE A WHORE IN HELL" splashed across them, because they can. And if one Facebook account gets shut down, they'll just switch to another. They've got lots.
Welcome to the future.
What are you gonna do about it?
*UPDATE, 2/20/2011: The person in the picture is, in fact, named Paul Nelson.
Whether this is actually the person making these posts is unknown.