It Takes A Village Part 7: The Anti-Social Side Of Pranks And Social Media
Click here to read the previous stories in the "It Takes A Village" series.
By Stephen K. Peeples
A pair of fun-loving radio DJs from 2DayFM in Sydney, Australia phoned the hospital in England where a pregnant Duchess Kate was being treated on Tuesday, Dec. 4, impersonating Kate’s royal grandparents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.
A nurse who took the call was tricked into forwarding it to the Duchess’ personal nurse, who dutifully gave the imposters an update on the Duchess’s condition. The call was broadcast Down Under, revealed to be a prank, and the bit went viral on the Web.
A lot of people around the world thought it was hilarious. At first.
Three days later, the nurse – 46, married and a mother of two teenagers -- was found dead in her home, hanging by a scarf.
Jacintha Saldanha’s apparent suicide in the wake of being embarrassed on a global scale is now being investigated by British authorities.
The tragic news of the India-born nurse’s death also went viral almost immediately on social media and then mainstream media around the world.
Most observers supported the nurse and castigated the DJs, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, for pulling such a prank, and further vilified station management and ownership for deciding to go ahead and broadcast the bit, which had been pre-recorded. Other commenters defended the DJs’ right to make such calls in the name of entertainment.
The incident instantly became and continues to be a topic of discussion throughout the radio industry, and around our station, too, as well as among colleagues we work with who also try to help young victims of pranks or bullying in our village.
Prank phone calls are about as old as the telephone itself. How many of us made them anonymously when we were kids? (Read on.)
The DJs, on the other hand, are adults, and so, presumably, are the station’s managers and owners.
When we’re kids, we don’t consider all the ramifications of the things we do, how they affect other people. By the time we’re adults, we’re supposed to have learned how to think things through, and have better judgment.
We’re supposed to have learned to be responsible and accountable for our own actions.
The upshot is that Saldanha’s dead, her family is devastated, and Grieg and Christian’s radio show was yanked off the air -- them along with it.
On Monday, Dec. 10, the DJs appeared on TV to publicly apologize to the nurse’s family and to tearfully express their grief. They had no idea their prank would backfire as it did. Yet they will have to live with the guilt. That is indeed a large bag of rocks they’ll carry around for the rest of their lives.
A student of a nursing college places a candle in front of a picture depicting nurse Jacintha Saldanha, during a candle-lit vigil organized by a local politician in Bangalore, India, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. An inquest into the apparent suicide of Saldanha, who was duped by a hoax call from Australian DJs about the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, heard Thursday that she was found hanging in her room, had wrist injuries and left three notes. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, courtesy NBC News)
Death threats have since sent the two into hiding.
The Australian Communications & Media Authority is now investigating whether the station violated terms of its broadcasting license or the industry code of practice.
Fortunately for us in the United States, Federal Communications Commission regulations prohibit broadcasters from airing soundbites or video clips of people without the speaker’s permission. No “Candid Camera” or even “Punk’d” segment could have aired without the subject’s expressed permission without risking a lawsuit or penalty.
What Can be Learned from This Tragedy?
Still, the DJs’ prank and its aftermath offer a lesson for us all, whether we’re broadcasters or not, in how quickly something intended to be comedic can go too far, and turn into a tragedy.
“I think that every time we have a tragic scenario like this, we should always reevaluate, and ask, ‘“Where can we tighten up our game so that it doesn't get to that point?’” said life skills coach Alex Urbina (pictured at left), who hosts the “Life Leadership” show on AM-1220 KHTS and is co-founder and director of education at the ACTION Family Zone in Canyon Country.
Media outlets like newspapers and broadcasters are bound by laws against libel and slander. Internet posts, on the other hand, are not regulated by the government (but there are laws against stealing and selling intellectual property, so sites like YouTube try to police themselves and require posters to own or have permission to post content).
This is America, after all. We live and die by and for the First Amendment. The Web is all about free speech, and gives voice to people who might otherwise have no other public forum to share ideas and information. Blogs and other social media have become a powerful force in helping us connect with other people around the world and get the global news in almost real time.
That’s all good.
But there can be an anti-social side to social media, when it’s used, especially anonymously, to attack or bully others, without the attacker bearing any responsibility or accountability for the damage that might be done to the “target” and/or those close to him or her.
The Power of Anonymity
As social media has become part of the fabric of our lives, there’s been a lot written about the negative effects of young people using it to bully others. Cyber-bullying is a phenomenon also explored in “Bully,” the award-winning 2012 film documentary, and something Kim Goldman often sees in our community as executive director of the SCV Youth Project.
“There’s a lot of power in anonymity,” Goldman said. “People get very brave when nobody knows it's them. A prank call, an anonymous letter, a text –- when you don't have to look at someone face-to-face, you get more ballsy.
Goldman (pictured at right) admitted making prank phone calls as a kid (OK, so did this writer, who in 6th grade, in a passive-aggressive fit of retaliation, ordered a pizza to be delivered to the house of a school bully).
“All my girlfriends and I would get together and we'd prank call the boy we liked or whatever,” she said. “And then *69 happened, so you could call (the prankster) back, and so that stopped me because then I got caught. The anonymity factor was gone.”
The anonymity behind social media can be similar, Goldman said, “It’s a free-for-all because you can create a whole other personality to really target and assault people, if that's what drives you. With social media, kids are just freer because of the quickness and because it's kind of hidden. You don't have to look at anybody in the eye when you're bullying them. On Facebook, you can just post stuff. There's just the quickness with which you can attack.”
Goldman cited a young local teen she and Youth Project staff are now trying to help cope with an online attack after the teen made what could charitably be called a bad choice.
“She sent a picture to her boyfriend of her boob or whatever it was, and it got out to everybody in the school and they put a little overlay on it that said, ‘This is so-and-so, this is what a slut looks like,’” Goldman said. “It went all over the school and this poor girl was tormented every day she went to school because everyone saw the picture and they were making fun of her, and she ended up leaving (the school).”
Yet a change of schools did not protect the girl from cyber-bullying. Before social media, a kid being verbally or physically abused at school could at least usually find refuge at home, or by going to a different school. Now, social media makes it easier to follow victims anywhere and torment them 24/7.
Urbina said he was working with two different families right now whose kids were being bullied both at school and online.
“Their children are getting depressed, and they don't want to eat,” Urbina said. “It's really sad to see that the Internet can be a forum for people to cowardly sit behind a screen and take shots at people by typing words, that they probably wouldn't otherwise have the courage to do face-to-face. It’s unfortunate but that's the world we've evolved into.”
What Can Parents Do?
Parents must step in when their children are being bullied, Urbina advised.
“What I've been telling my friends and any of my clients as parents is, ‘You made a commitment to your son or daughter when they were born to look out for them, to have their back, to make sure that they win and to defend them at all costs. And when your kid's being bullied, whether it's at school or on the Internet, you made a commitment to protect them. So you've got to do whatever you need to do to make sure, that you flush that out, and that you help your son or daughter move past it in a healthy way and to bring an end to it.
“It means you've got to go to the principals, you've got to go to the website, you've got to make personal phone calls, you've got to do what you need to do to make sure that it stops,” Urbina said. “Walk them through it very delicately (and) have open conversations with your kids. Let them know that, ‘Hey, this is how the world is showing up now.’ And this goes not only for your kids, but also for all of our kids, as a community and as brothers and sisters in our village.”
When it comes to people using social media in an anti-social way, Urbina knows there’s a limit to what one can do to control or stop it. How to cope with it is a life skill worth learning, at any age.
Goldman has learned to deal with being attacked in the media, traditional as well as online, the hard way. In the years since her brother Ron’s homicide in 1994, and O.J. Simpson’s criminal and civil trials in the case, Goldman and their father, Fred, founded The Ron Goldman Foundation for Justice, which offers help to victims of crimes.
“People talk crap about me and my family all over the place, and they don't think about how it affects me,” she said. “I get sucked into some of their websites sometimes, and I read about my assumed drug problem or that I'm a bisexual or the reasons that my marriage broke up, or attacks on my religion or my faith. And these are people that have never met me. It's hard.
“So even if I don't participate in it, people still use social media as a forum to say whatever the heck they want, because there's no recourse, no accountability,” Goldman said. “It's easy to just spew whatever you want and move on. You have a fake name and you can say whatever the heck you want with no repercussions. I would be on the Internet for days on end trying to defend myself, if that were important to me.”
What Can Anyone Do?
“I believe that the best way to deal with (online) bullying is to not give it any credibility,” he said.
“The Web gives people this unconscious permission to speak whatever they're thinking and not really look at being courteous and being kind. So you can't control what people write or say on the social media boards or forums, but don't give it meaning, don't give it validation. Just know that people have that right to express their opinion. And if you know you're not those things, then who cares?
“It's like having a four-year-old stick his or her tongue out at you and call you names and mock you,” Urbina said. “You're not going to get upset because you know the four-year-old doesn't have common sense yet. You have to see people on the Internet like that, (knowing) not everybody has the ability to be kind and generous and courteous to each other.”
Urbina called this a “reinterpretation” skill. “You have to learn how to reinterpret people's intentions and see them as just their opinions, and don't give them meaning, because remember, we're the meaning-maker to everything,” he said. “So when someone gets on our Facebook page and says mean things, that's just their opinion, it's not the truth. As long as you don't agree with it, there's really no (reason) for you to deny it, attack it, or do anything other than just let it be or ignore it, or erase it, for all that matter.”
Coping with bullying in the age of social media is “a huge learning experience for all of us, including me,” Urbina said, “because when I get those phone calls (from parents), I see their kids like my kids and my nieces and nephews, and I want to put a stop to it, too. So I'm glad you are opening up this conversation.”
Click here to read the previous stories in the "It Takes A Village" series.