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When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying?

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Calling out racists who posted offensive comments about President Barack Obama seems like a great use of the internet and social networks — after all, that kind of behavior is easier to identify than it has ever been before, thanks to Twitter search and Facebook profiles. But what if the people making those comments are high-school kids? Is it still okay to identify them and subject them to public ridicule, or worse? Those are just a few of the questions I asked myself after I read a Jezebel piece on Friday that did exactly that — including calls to the schools that these students attended.

These are questions that seem to be coming up more and more frequently as we live increasingly large parts of our lives online: When is it okay to publicize someone’s identity for things they said on Twitter, and what kinds of consequences do we think are appropriate for online bad behavior?

The post by Jezebel co-founder Tracie Egan Morrisey — which was entitled “Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets About the ‘Nigger’ President” — was a followup of sorts to a previous post that highlighted a number of racist tweets posted to the service following Obama’s election victory on Tuesday night. None of the users who posted them were specifically identified, but in the more recent piece, Morrisey identified several students at a number of schools in the U.S. who posted similar comments. The story also went into some detail about them, noting that one student “plays football for Xaverian High School, a private Catholic prep school in Brooklyn, NY,” and that others also play sports for their schools.

What is an appropriate response for a single tweet?

The point of doing this seemed to be that most schools have codes of conduct, particularly for those who represent the school on sports teams, and racist tweets would appear to be in contravention of those rules. But is publicly identifying these students — who are legally children — on a website like Jezebel really an appropriate response to what in some cases was a single tweet? In an email, Morrisey said that she felt there was no issue with writing the story, since the students in question had already publicly identified themselves through Twitter profiles and Facebook profiles:

We actually did not “out” the identities of these tweeters — they did, through their public Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles. They used their real names, listed their schools and their locations, and thus broadcasted these details to the entire world by virtue of putting them on the internet.

We chose to get in touch with the school administrators who are charged with educating these individuals because the institutions not only have mission statements about their educational goals, but they also have student conduct codes.”

Some commenters on Jezebel clearly disagreed with the site’s decision. One comment that got a lot of votes from other readers asked “Is this what we’ve come to?? Internet shaming children, blasting their crimes across the web?” And others who specialize in online behavior, including sociologist Zeynep Tufekci from the University of North Carolina, also said they found the public shaming troubling:


Many of those who took part in a Twitter discussion of the issue with me on Friday believed that the students in question should have to face the consequences of their actions — after all, the internet is a public place, they argued, and even children need to realize that making such comments could affect their lives. Others said that public shaming of racism is the only way to effectively fight such beliefs, and therefore what Jezebel did was appropriate.


Is there no room for online mistakes any more?

One of the things that troubles me about this incident is that it shows how quick we can be to judge a person — especially someone in high school, who may be acting badly for all kinds of complicated reasons — without any real understanding of what is going on, or what the repercussions may be. Making people face the consequences for saying things online is a noble goal, but is there no room even for children to make mistakes without the full force of the internet being brought to bear? As far as I can tell, Morrisey didn’t even try to contact the high-school students she profiled, or their parents.


A quick internet search of one of the individuals mentioned shows that this incident is the top result for their name. Maybe that will fade over time, especially since some of those involved seem to have deleted their accounts — or maybe it won’t. Couldn’t the same thing have been achieved by calling the schools to identify the students, without doing so in the article itself? Morrisey denied that there was any attempt to “shame” those involved, and yet the headline talks about forcing these students to answer for their alleged crimes. Is this kind of online vigilantism really going to solve anything?


Similar issues came up during the recent public outing of a notorious Reddit “troll” named Violentacrez, who was profiled in a Gizmodo post, and the similar revealing of a Twitter user who went by the name ComfortablySmug, who posted inaccurate information during Hurricane Sandy. The Reddit moderator was seen as fair game by many because he created threads devoted to child pornography and other offensive content, but ComfortablySmug was a less obvious case — as we noted in a post and an internal debate that we published about the issues raised by such online lynch mobs.

Both of those individuals were adults, however, and presumably understood the consequences of their actions before they engaged in them. How much should we expect high-school students to suffer for what might have been an offhand comment or an attempt to impress their friends? How much public ridicule or online condemnation is too much, and when does it cross over into outright bullying? These are issues we are going to be confronting more and more as we live out our lives online, and the answers are not obvious.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Cotidad and See-ming Lee

64 Responses to “When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying?”

  1. Jonathon Shmonathon

    I think the key thing to keep in mind, no matter who you are, no matter who you’re talking too or about, whatever strategy you use, is to call out the action, not the individual. Call someone out on what they say, how they say it, and what that reveals about how they think. But save the judgements on their character to yourself. “That’s racist,” not “you’re racist.” That’s the bright red border that demarcates the territory of public chastisement from the territory of public bullying or defamation.

  2. Jeremy Pepper

    I find this really interesting, Mathew, as I raised the same issue when Buzzfeed does it, or any other site that publicized tweets during other events, eg Rhianna / Chris Brown or the attacks on Gabby Douglas’ hair, and didn’t take the extra time to hide the names or faces.

    I called out it out as both irresponsible journalism – well “journalism” – and a form of bullying. And while Twitter may be public, and those accounts public, the perception by many teens/YA is that Twitter is for their friends, and there is likely a major disconnect that their Tweets are searchable.

    So for raising that flag … I got attacked by those who told me I just didn’t get it, that I was wrong. Apparently, it’s wrong to defend people that might not be doing things that are defensible, but still should have a right to say stupid things, and not be bullied and attacked.

    What a sad world we live in now.

  3. AppleLowe

    Ways to avoid being bullied for saying racist things online

    Step one: Don’t post it on twitter.
    Step two: Don’t use your real name.
    Step three: Don’ say racist crap online.

    Convince me any of those steps is confusing or difficult and I’ll feel bad about those poor horribly racist kids. Or better yet give me a list of steps to avoid being called racist names and being bullied because of the colour of your skin. Or right one is a stupid decision that is the end result of a pattern of behaviour that simply hasn’t gotten you in enough trouble before for you to stop and clearly a choice and the other you don’t get a choice over.

    At what point did bullies become a protected minority group and not just ignorant and vicious thugs making the choice to make the lives of others a living nightmare for the crime of existing?

  4. And to add to my previous comment, I can see a case for Jezebel contacting the school involved if these students were using Twitter/Facebook to bully other kids. But in this case, horrible as their remarks are, they were, when you get down to it, making disparaging remarks about a public official. As much as I abhor the comments, I can’t see a strong case being made for why these students should be coerced by their schools from making them on their own Twitter feeds.

  5. I have absolutely no problem with publicizing the racist tweets, kids or not. The “how quick we are to judge someone based on one tweet” frame for criticizing this action is pure nonsense, since that’s what the Twittersphere does ALL THE TIME. One mistweet on the wrong account earns people and companies ridicule to no end, and for much less horrible things than what these kids were tweeting. And Jezebel is right: They didn’t out these kids. They didn’t hack into accounts to retrieve private messages. They just read these PUBLIC tweets on these kids’ accounts like everybody else on Twitter can.

    But I think Jezebel crosses the line in contacting the schools. The reasons it gives for doing so are weak. Since when did Jezebel declare itself to be the Internet police of good student behavior everywhere? Unless these kids were using school equipment and networks to post these tweets, the schools have no business getting involved here.

  6. David & I

    I looked at the story on The people who tweeted seem to have used their own names. Jezebel seems only to have repeated names and tweets that were already public. This is a good way for young people to learn “If you don’t want the world to know that you said it, don’t say it–anywhere.”

  7. Thinking that you can be anonymous regarding anything that gets posted on line is pretty stupid whether is racist posts, sexting, or emails to your girlfriend Mr. Patreus. As others have stated, the internet is a public place. The racist posts have consequences and the students that posted them should bare those consequences. Reinforcing the public nature of what they did will both help them and everyone else that has to endure their bigotry.

  8. Big kid pants require big kid responsibility. No one said the internet was for kids. Putting things on Facebook or Twitter is the same as inviting everyone in your town to the same place and then spouting off with whatever is on your mind at the time, good or bad. If you don’t want your neighbors to hear it, don’t put it out on the web. The web is written in ink, not pencil. The minute one person sees it, it is forever there regardless if you delete it. If you don’t think kids should be subject to the same rules then there is an easy fix, don’t let them use the internet.

  9. People in this country need to be made to face up to and take responsibility for their actions. It starts at a young age. Considering the horrible things that adults do, and that children often emulate these crimes and are often prosecuted as adults, this should be an easy lesson in humility and may save someone from a worse mistake by learning the value of thinking twice before acting. And , the internet is public.

  10. Egglantine

    While I found the teenagers’ behavior appalling, and believe that they need to learn how to use social media properly, I was more appalled by the lengths Jezebel went to shame them. To me it almost feels like an abuse of power for a blog of Jezebel’s stature to go after these kids—petty, bush league, and self-congratulatory.
    It’s also interesting to read the responses from the Jezebel commenters, many of whom appear shocked that this kind of racism exists. My suspicion is that most of them are white, as most commenters of color will mention that fact in their posts. For the record, I’m a person of color who has heard and experienced far worse than what these kids tweeted about a public figure. Why the need to teach these kids a lesson, as opposed to the adult perpetrators of racism and much greater injustice? Because it’s easy and makes you feel good about yourself, so that you can pat yourself on the back and say that you did something noble and honorable in the fight against racism (even if you, yourself, have never experienced racism or turned a blind eye to it before). I think there’s a lot of white guilt in operation here.

  11. It only became a “mistake” once the person felt the backlash. If their racist comments were met with encouragement, would they recant or continue?

    Everyone has a right to express their views, no matter how extreme, however with that right comes the understanding/acceptance that others will express their right to disagree.

  12. Sabrina Murphy Barth

    I don’t care how old you are, you need to take responsibility for your actions. The backlash your hatred/ignorant tweets create, is of your own doing.

    Hatred and bigotry should never be tolerated, along with ignorance!!

    Mcbeese below is right “There is still far too much racism in the world. We need to jump on it whenever we see it. “

  13. Ms Anthropy

    If these kids aren’t aware of how to be good digital citizens and understand how to maintain a good digital footprint, then perhaps they shouldn’t be using things like Twitter? Perhaps their mums and dads should be supervising their internet usage in some kind of social media playpen until they understand that what they write is online forever?

    Having said this, If I’d written the article I would have cited the tweets but not the tweeters, and also contacted the schools on the quiet. People need to stand up to racists, and hopefully the reaction these kids got has made them reflect critically on the opinions they hold and their online behaviours.

  14. So let’s see… Someone hates on an entire race of people just because of the color of their skin, and publicly ridicules them with hateful language but there’s something wrong with pointing it out? This is not someone getting caught muttering something to himself: They publicly Tweeted it for crying out loud! They wanted to share and distribute their hate and invite more. if anything, these people should be suspended or imprisoned. I can’t believe this article is suggesting that the racist pigs are the victims!

  15. Hey, it’s still bullying even if these people are adults. For example, a celebrity with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers who retweets somebody for the mere purpose of humiliating them and inciting their own followers to bully them incessantly is bullying, plain and simple. I think we’re at the point where bullying is so rampant in society that we can’t even recognize it when we see it. Bullying doesn’t stop when you turn eighteen. You don’t stop feeling it just because you hit a certain age. And bullying a bully? That’s just being a bully too.

  16. Marco Campana

    I agree with @meloncholy, “I find this a difficult one.” I”m not sure where I land on the disclosure, but I will say that I was disgusted by the tweets. Someone definitely had to tell the tweeters what they wrote was unacceptable.

    What I do find interesting about this conversation and article is the lack of voices of those who are most deeply affected by racist language. This seems to be a bunch of white people discussing racism with mostly other white people (disclosure, I’m white too). That seems problematic to me. We should be talking about it, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t. But, something’s missing here, don’t you think? Or, more accurately, some voices. I might be wrong about everyone’s background here, sure, but that part of the conversation would, for me, add something more to this conversation.

    Talking about the implications for the tweeters is relevant, but what about the implications for people who hear this language every day, in every space? So, are these truly examples of “online mistakes”? I’m not sure that the assumption of a lack of intent (i.e. a benefit of the doubt) for these tweeters is something I’m willing to offer.

    Further to Patrick Thornton’s tweet: “I am fascinated that these kids must have thought their views were widespread.”, this Guardian article is a useful read:

    I think that in the mythology of a “post-racial” America, these views are, in fact, widespread. I’m surprised that this is even a question we ponder. That’s definitely part of this story, and it should be a key point in anything written about it. This isn’t just an online story, it’s a story about racism. And, even in a story with a social media angle, that shouldn’t be missing.

    Personally, I’m hoping jsmooth weighs in on the topic –

    • Jezebel isn’t performing a public service, they’re harvesting clicks by using using the n-word over and over. As a brown woman, and a journalist, I find it pretty gross. These are teens that had a one- or two-off gross exclamation, not Violentacrez, whose adult behaviour also encouraged others to ape that behaviour.

      That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions…the Jez post noted that most of the schools said they already knew about the tweets. So concerned citizens seem to be responding without needing to be heros. Good for them. As for Jezebel, I dismissed them last year when they ran full body screen shots of sexual assaults caught on camera. Tabloid trash masquerading as women’s journalism.

  17. I find this a difficult one. I strongly believe that the best defence of and response to bad speech is more speech, but everyone has a duty (not a legal or mandatory one, but a moral one as a good citizen) to exercise their right to speech responsibly. These students certainly didn’t do that, but arguably nor did Jezebel. (And telling their schools about this reminds me of the sorts of legal bullying we all too often see when someone is trying to suppress speech they don’t like and threatens the author’s employer.)

    These tweets were public, but the audience that these students had in mind was probably 50 of their friends, not the readers of an extremely popular blog. It would be eminently reasonable for them to be criticised by their peers and probably a wider group too, but I’d argue that incurring the wrath of Jezebel and all of its Twitter followers is less reasonable.

    The Girls Around Me app was another example of people being (mostly) happy to place information from Facebook and foursquare in the public domain, yet being very unhappy – quite properly – when that information is used for different purposes. As more of our lives is documented online, including the trivial, unscripted and unprepared moments, we are increasingly losing the ability to forget and, much more importantly, to control the context in which our information (and mistakes) can be used.

    Helen Nissenbaum has thought a lot about this, and she argues that we need to get beyond thinking of privacy online as binary – it’s either private or it’s public – and put the social situation back into the mix. The sorts of things you’re happy for your doctor to know are not the same as the things you’re happy for your bank to know, and the things you’re happy for your Instagram followers to see are not the same things as you’d be happy to find in the seedier parts of Reddit. (I’m not going to try to link to it here as I assume my comment will be blocked, but the Atlantic has an article on this titled “The Philosopher Whose Fingerprints Are All Over the FTC’s New Approach to Privacy”.)

    I don’t know how to solve this – or even if we can solve this – but it’s certainly gonna be something that comes up increasingly often over the next few years…

  18. origami isopod

    I think it’s hilarious that you deleted my comment because I used a naughty word, but you’re sooooo concerned about these poor widdle racist white children who spew hatred on Twitter and, probably, offline and in the presence of kids of color. Gotta wonder if you even give a darn (see, Matt, I’ve censored myself just for you!) about them.

  19. Bullying would be if Jezebel continually posted articles about these teens, which they haven’t done. I expect more thought in my Giga Om posts! Or is this just an attempt to ride some wave f of increased click-througs that Gawker sites are known for.

    Also, times change and I hardly think teens these days can be considered “children”.

  20. Linux Lewis

    Anti-Racism is taught
    Out of the thousands of languages in the world, most do not have the word RACISM because THEIR countries remain homogeneous and they already have a word similar to RACISM, its called LOYALTY.. White countries have “race problems” because white countries are diverse while the vast majority of the world remains homogeneous. ONLY white children are told they have to look beyond skin color, no other group is TAUGHT that.

    Anti-Racists are IGNORANT.
    The root of IGNORANCE is the word IGNORE. In order for me to be “Anti-Racist” i have to DELIBERATELY IGNORE behaviors and traits of different breeds/subspecies/races of humans. But i don’t have to ignore it everywhere else, in fact PitBulls get banned from major cities because of THEIR behavior..

    The only prerequisite to being anti-racist, is that you are intentionally ignorant, for no other reason than you are afraid that your TV will hate you if you arent an intentional idiot.

    This is straight out of Orwells 1984…. liberalism is fucking DISTURBING, but we’ve seen it before, it was called COMMUNISM at one time.

    • “Only white children are taught that you have to look beyond skin color”? Out of all these posts, even the ones agreeing with the teens, yours is by far the most ignorant.. THAT was almost as racist as the teens calling our President foul names. Please go crawl back into your cave and let the humans discuss things.

  21. L.Renwick

    If these teens thought it OK to publicly voice their opinions on Twitter then they certainly deserved to be “outed” by Jezebel. The sting is quite strong when you are confronted with your own ignorance and can’t try and toss it aside. Perhaps that may teach them a lesson.

  22. AdamJones

    Racism is a horrible thing for people to promote but if someone wants to form their own personal bigoted opinions and express them, what right do we have to punish that sort of thinking? Even though I am completely against racism, if someone else has a racist opinion I have no right to force them to not have that opinion. You could argue that their opinions were merely being discouraged but that doesn’t need to be done publicly. In the end racism is similar to drug use in the way that people form their own opinions based upon what they perceive to be true. If we are to censor these opinions and call in the lynch mob aren’t we opposing the right to free-minded thinking? Who are we to force our own opinions on others for something that doesn’t affect us?

    • I don’t think you are against racism. Racism hurts as much as and sometimes even more than being bullied. You think that “free minded thinking” should be encouraged and therefore by extention racist thoughts and behavior should be also encouraged.Good, then by your logic, I suggest bullying, public lynching etc etc should also not be discouraged because they trump on individuals free will…….RIGHT?

    • Liz Pullen

      Because racism isn’t just holding a different opinion but hate speech. Did you see the Jezebel story and see what these teenagers were saying? It was horrible. Just think if people had stood up for Jews in 1930s Germany to the Hitler Youth. And you can not force someone to hold any opinion, just remind them that being a racist has social consequences. And it will when any employer Googles their name and up pops a Tweet where they are complaining about n!ggers.

      And I find it painfully ironic that you call an article asking these youth to be accountable for their racism to be a “lynch mob”. No one was censoring them, just confronting them about their bigotry. People confront each other on Twitter millions of times a day, the issue was whether this should be done because they were minors and whether it should be shared with the public in a blog post.

      • Waiting to Exhale

        Thank you. I do think Jezebel is correct to publicly call them out. Enough of hiding in the shadows. If we do not start making our teenagers understand that at their age they have more responsibility than a 5 year old, then we’re in more trouble than we can handle.

      • .You have a lot of nerve to play the Nazi Germany card especially since black on Jewish and black on Asian Nazi-like hate speech is so rampent in this country and gets a free pass. There is nothing these kids said that is any worse that the way Democratic incumbent Marion Barry and Louis Farrakhan talk about Asians and Jews. How about calling these 2 black males out? Or you’d rather harass white kids?

      • Wait, what? You’re comparing Jezebel and folks like yourself to the White Rose resistance movement? Oh wait, you’re not because you probably haven’t even realized that there was a resistance movement to the Nazis. What happened to them? They were arrested and died horrible deaths for their non-violent protests.

        You’re like them, because you find dumb or misguided teens on the net and publicly out their stupidity (rather than say reporting it to their school counselors to be addressed privately). Instead of having people confront the racism inside them, you just want them never ever to mention it.

        For that you compare yourself to young Germans who were tortured to death for standing up to Nazi brutality.

        You sir, are a drama queen and moral retard. You care zero about addressing and correcting racism and just want to stifle and shame people who disagree with you, not convince them of the wrongness inside and lead them to a better understanding. And god forbid you see the wrongness inside you!

      • I, like others commenting on Liz Pullen’s spot-on article, have no idea what “Spike” is talking about. Hate speech may, in some forms, be protected by the First Amendment. That’s ok. But expressing hate speech has consequences. Simply because the speaker might be a high school student doesn’t mean they don’t understand or appreciate the concept of “the internet”, or how permanent and pervasive their comments and pictures can be. Certainly if they know how to tweet, post, like, etc., they can figure out that their racist opinions can now go viral and impact them, in some form or another, in the future. Further, neither Jezebel nor anyone else outing these racist kids is ‘shaming’ them. Other people (employers, college admission boards, classmates, co-workers) can respond to the kid’s racism in any way they want as long as it is legal. If this all means that some kids are too young (read: stupid) to realize the consequences of their actions, then they shouldn’t have the technology in their possession in the first place. I’m sorry, but the bottom line is that technology can force all of us to be more responsible and careful than we otherwise would be. Just think if a presidential candidate made some disparaging comments that were caught on a cell phone camera and then posted across the whole country? It could affect the whole election!

    • @AdamJones “You could argue that their opinions were merely being discouraged but that doesn’t need to be done publicly.” huh? I think remarks like these represent the thoughts of people that would not describe themselves as ‘racist,’ but see laying-off reporting on this behavior as a good idea because they too acted/held misguided views at some point (presently?)

      Also, I think that this behavior reflects on these kids’ home situations. I doubt their parents say civil things about Obama’s policies/party/race, just like the FOX News broadcasts they might watch. This have/have-not binary does beg that the uniformed person “pick a side.”

      The title of this post,”When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying?” shows the writer isn’t invested in anti-racist activity as much as drawing a line in the sand to protect white youth from their own sense of white supremacy. Perhaps Mathew Ingram, or his editor, thought “Is there no room for online mistakes any more?” and “what is the appropriate response for a SINGLE tweet?” These headers trivialize the behavior, show bias, framed as valid questions. the article concludes with recent adults who’ve gained notoriety. “How much should we expect high-school students to suffer for what might have been an offhand comment or an attempt to impress their friends?” Ingram asks. He’s asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why/what caused the behavior, he sounds like he’s concerned, not for our county’s complicated and too unjust racist landscape, or the victims of racially-motivated malice–but for the kids that perpetuate the slander.

      (BTW, I arrived at this page after searching for TMo DC-HSPA+ info. I’m trying to figure out how better the Nexus 4’s data speeds are compared to the Galaxy Nexus (not 42). I got excited when I saw the article from last year was done with testing results from my city, Columbus, Ohio. Please cover that in a follow-up!)

    • Carl Hess

      It is. You have the right to say racist things, and others have the right to call you on it. Whether this should be publicly done to teenagers on the internet is not a matter of rights (free speech) but of norms.

  23. If you aren’t old enough to deal with the Internet, you aren’t old enough to be on the Internet.

    If you’re on the Internet being a bigot (race, gender, gay, religion) you deserve all that you get back, in my opinion. Just like when the schoolyard bully finally gets punched in the face – it’s deserved, and it doesn’t make the kid that stood up to him/her a bully for standing their ground.

    There is still far too much racism in the world. We need to jump on it whenever we see it. I was sickened and saddened by all the things ignorant people were posting about our President during the election.

    • Samantha

      I totally agree…and this is a lesson that the things you decide to do GOOD OR BAD, OR EVEN UGLY ..will follow you in life..I’m glad it was addressed and should be dealt with accordingly…with the Parents, Schools and in the work place

    • Waiting to Exhale

      I agree completely. You would call them out if they posted anti-Semitic or homophobic comments without hesitation. High school students should be held accountable. They are warned over and over again that what they post on the internet is permanent.

    • If you’re on the Internet being a bigot (race, gender, gay, religion) you deserve all that you get back

      So if I tracked down one of these tweeters and murdered him/her, would that be deserved? Or does the mere involvement of the internet not act as a moral magic wand that justifies any reaction whatsoever?