Vigilante detective risks May 22, 2001 12:50 AM   Subscribe

An immediate wee-small-hours-of-the-morning reaction to the Kaycee threads (garment?): I think that a non-commercial site for the communal sharing of information and opinions is a great thing, in fact that MeFi is reason enough for the web to exist. I was also hooked by the Kaycee saga. But there was an element of it that made me uneasy, a feeling that in the wrong situation the community detective work could get into a tell-on-your-neighbors Stasi/McCarthyite area. I don't think this was the case here, and I appreciate that MeFi by and large still has a moderate (and, yeah, liberal) tone, that I share. I don't think the number of users should be limited. I just see the investigative power of thousands of people, and that that could be used to the wrong ends. I'm not suggesting any changes, but wanted to bring this up during this strange afterglow period.
posted by liam to MetaFilter-Related at 12:50 AM (30 comments total)

When phone numbers and phone calls started to the local priest, I started to get a little uneasy, myself.
posted by crunchland at 5:42 AM on May 22, 2001

That's the risk of any uncensored place where information is exchanged in real time. If the news media had gotten a hold of this story instead of MetaFilter, a reporter would have contacted the pastor, local people in Peabody, the Swensons and Julie Fullbright without hesitation. The fact that a group of people on a Web site did it instead shouldn't make that much difference.
posted by rcade at 7:13 AM on May 22, 2001

But Rogers, could the same power not be used for bad things like liam is suggesting?
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:19 AM on May 22, 2001

Something that has impressed me very much has been the restraint and consideration shown by MeFi contributors throughout the Kaycee threads. People were quick to urge others to treat 'real world' contact information with respect and that appears to have been done by everyone concerned.

My heart sank when I saw the Swenson's phone number at the top of a google search page at a point when it was not yet clear the Swensons were anything but innocent bystanders. If that had turned out to be the case, but a less responsible community had taken it upon themselves to start making calls, the situation could have been very ugly for everyone.

Thankfully, that didn't happen. I'm nothing but impressed by the way people at MeFi have handled themselves.
posted by normy at 8:36 AM on May 22, 2001

Some false accusations were made. Coming from one individual, that carries a pretty heavy ethical responsibility; coming from a group, people feel less responsible (wrongly obviously), especially when caught up in all the fun of the investigation. I don't know anyone involved , but I'm guessing that a couple of young people (freethinker1, audra lee) might not be feeling too good about MeFi right now, particularly if users (is MeFi a drug?) were googling for their high school photos and such. (Fortunately, Halcyon had a more established presence and some good friends in the community).

ps. Julie Fullbright: All of your Face Belong to Kaycee
(ok, shoot me now)
posted by liam at 8:55 AM on May 22, 2001

er "...are belong to..."
posted by liam at 8:57 AM on May 22, 2001

Perusing the names of posters here on MeFi over the past few days in the Kaycee threads, I see some very familiar names from my email inbox - in the interests of conserving bandwith, I would respectfully suggest that anyone who sent me hate mail last autumn, or Becky and Saundra hate mail over the last week, because we did not believe in Kaycee, or were able to prove she did not exist, should consider excusing themselves from playing investigative reporter here on Metafilter now.

While it may have seemed that people handled themselves well here, I have gotten a tremendous amount of hate mail over this very issue over the last 8 months - some of it from the very people now devoting themselves to getting to the bottom of this.
posted by kristin at 8:58 AM on May 22, 2001

I guess we should ask ourselves this: If Debbie Swenson of Peabody, Kansas, was completely uninvolved, how could we have kept anyone from contacting people she knows, contacting people in her town, or publishing her address and a link to a Google record showing her phone number?

I'm not sure there's an answer short of avoiding this kind of inquiry completely -- which in my view would have been terrible, because possible mail fraud and identity theft are serious crimes.
posted by rcade at 8:58 AM on May 22, 2001

I'm sorry to hear that, kristin. All I have to go on is what I've seen posted in the various threads.

Think I'll just go back to lurking for a while...
posted by normy at 9:02 AM on May 22, 2001

I agree with you, rcade. I just posted this thread to try to keep some level-headedness and self-awareness amid the triumphalism, and maintain the MeFi standards of decency, which remain, overall, astonishingly high.
posted by liam at 9:11 AM on May 22, 2001

I'm glad to see folks raising these questions here - it has felt a bit overwhelming to me to see the pile-on of MeFi folks on this not-so-enormous news story. And Rogers, I think it is different than traditional news media coverage in the sense that there's a filter, generally, between what gets reported and what gets written - reading Metafilter for the past week has felt like reading a reporter's notebook, complete with the speculations and scratched out crazy ideas that would never make it into a polished and published news story. And because of that, hundreds of people went down blind alleys, lashing out at people like Kristin, who might not have been as exposed in a traditional news piece. Additionally, the sheer volume of people playing Woodward and Bernstein here is very different from other news outlets, where the pastor (for instance) might get one call from a single reporter instead of having his name and phone number posted online for the nearly 9000 members and countless non-members of Metafilter to potentially abuse. There's also no common code of journalistic ethics in this realm (however laughable that code might be in more traditional media outlets) - and no matter how much decency and restraint certain members of this community have shown, it's clear - as Liam points out - that Metafilter can veer towards the tipping point of mob mentality that could get ugly in another situation.
posted by judith at 9:27 AM on May 22, 2001

that could get ugly in another situation.
That *has* gotten ugly. 123CheapHosting, anyone?
posted by darukaru at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2001

You say ugly, I say just. It's difficult to feel sympathy for 123CheapHosting; if you screw with a community of 9k members, expect 9k angry responses.

posted by norm at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2001

I think that perhaps the structure of MeFi, which works so well for what usually happens here, may be a little loose and open for Scooby Doo detective work. The amusement park caretaker doesn't need to be interviewed by Fred and Velma 5 minutes after Shaggy and Scooby talk to him. I think that pulling off to egroups was a good idea, but it still seemed like you needed some sort of way of organizing the masses and maybe an easier way of keeping everyone on the same ethics page (although people seemed pretty careful in this case). Too bad you can't use the beta Pyra anymore. I guess that might introduce some hierarchy, and slowed things down somewhat...but, I think I lost my train of thought, so I will stop now...
posted by eckeric at 11:05 AM on May 22, 2001

Metafilter: The Collective Detective.
posted by crunchland at 11:26 AM on May 22, 2001 [1 favorite]

norm: and what's to say the next 'cause' won't be 'just', too?

I haven't been deep-reading the kaycee threads: has "Debbie"'s email address been publicly posted yet? (The comments above imply that her RL address and phone number have.) When it is, I fully expect a howling mob to descend on her.

Deserved or not, mob justice serves only itself; it has no other purpose than to assuage the hurt of many (real or imagined) by transferring that hurt to one. (I wonder how many people who argue the anti POV on death penalty threads will be participating in the mob.)
posted by darukaru at 12:15 PM on May 22, 2001

Debbie has a dozen e-mail addresses floating around.
posted by rcade at 12:20 PM on May 22, 2001

It's an E-mob, though, not a real one. Somehow my heartstrings are not pulled.
posted by norm at 12:33 PM on May 22, 2001

More to the point:
norm: and what's to say the next 'cause' won't be 'just', too?

Sic 'em. I mean, very few of the possible consequences to Debbie (if that is her real name) are in the Real World. If the wrong she committed is online, then a massive online response is warranted. Heck, she's earned herself some prank phone calls too, if that is what will happen. I'm just not very impressed with the anti-mob arguments. Why shouldn't we all email her and harass the hell out of her?

(I wonder how many people who argue the anti POV on death penalty threads will be participating in the mob.)

Oh, please. That doesn't follow at all. Unless our harassing emails make her drop dead. Then I concede to your brilliance.
posted by norm at 12:42 PM on May 22, 2001

I would respectfully suggest that anyone who sent me hate ... because we did not believe in Kaycee

Why is it so hard for people to be doubtful and respectful? I mean, the whole first thread was about respectfully disagreeing or doubting. Why couldn’t the doubters be shown the same respect?
posted by capt.crackpipe at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2001

As I just said in an email to Rogers (who suggested I share the comments here), I've been quite impressed with much of the detective work done by the MeFi members -- most notably the person who discovered the identity of the girl in the photos.

However, I think phone calls to pastors and the like are a terrible idea. When that call was made, no one was even sure Debbie Swanson was involved in all this, only that her name was. In the little small towns where the Swanson saga has taken place, this kind of story can ruin someone's life. So I do think that move was a bit reckless, even if the intentions were good.

Someone else's phone number and address should never, ever be posted on a site without that person's permission. Ever.

This has been a giant witch-hunt, for sure. It's revealed some good information, but I'm a little worried about the mob-mentality that seems to have taken hold.
posted by shauna at 1:51 PM on May 22, 2001

Although it appears that the end completely justifies the means here, I am beginning to be creeped out by the practice of mob journalism.

If I'm a reporter and I cold call an entire town asking if the mayor wears women's underpants, I can be held responsible for my actions (and, more importantly, my paper can).

Who's responsible here if we fuck up? If an online group ever scoobies the wrong person, we could easily do more damage than Debbie did to her favorite basketball star.
posted by rcade at 2:24 PM on May 22, 2001

and color my opinions similar to shauna's.

i realize some people here feel hurt and want to feel vindicated. and hell, we're all big x-files fans. and i've seen people post here and on the kaycee discussion site about not minding being contacted by the new york times.

how much of this is about curiosity? how much is a witch hunt? how much is because you're really pissed off and this is your way of getting justice?

or how much is because you want to get quoted in the new york times, because you want the credit for figuring it out? how much is like solving a complicated trouble? and how much is to cause someone else harm?
posted by maximolly at 2:38 PM on May 22, 2001

Someone else's phone number and address should never, ever be posted on a site without that person's permission. Ever.

Even if that person's phone number and address is publically available elsewhere (online or off)? And what about Web site & email addresses? Are they different somehow? Where does that line get drawn?
posted by jkottke at 2:48 PM on May 22, 2001

--Be like us or we will destroy you--

Is it just me or does it feel like a corner has been turned.

I've often wondered what is the general uneasiness I feel about the words "online community" and this past week has heightened that feeling.

The congratulatory tone and thirst for blood of the KC posts here started to get scary.

The news gets out that someone didn't die and the crowd want justice. Isn't that just a little bit crazy.
posted by fullerine at 6:01 AM on May 25, 2001

I don't know where you see the thirst for blood or justice (and could you be a little more melodramatic, by the way? your words are so drab). There have only been one or two posters who have said they hope she goes to jail. More people than that have said they hope she gets help, and have marked concern for her family, her children, and the young woman in the Kaycee photographs.

People wanted to expose the fraud, to find out how deep it went or long it lasted, to find out who else they thought they knew might not be real. They wanted to make sure that it doesn't happen again. People who were fucked, let's make no mistake, were angry at the person who fucked them. Do not forget this person brought all of this anger on herself, and went to a lot of trouble to cover her tracks.

Yeah, there was a bit of a stampede, which wasn't helped much by Metafilter crashing and then losing its feed. But did it actually trample anyone innocent?

Sure, along the way, a few questions were raised (e.g. audra lea, or bwg's truthfulness) that may have made people angry. Those questions were asked, answered, and discarded. Metafilter exists somewhere in the realm between reportage and conversation, and those were definitely more along the latter lines. People saying that questions should not have been asked were part of the problem, part of the reason that the doubts raised as early as last September were characterized as insensitive or shouted down. But those people were right, and should not have been silenced. If they'd been listened to, maybe it would have ended with a lot fewer people feeling taken advantage of, and with Debbie's reputation salvageable. If they'd been listened to, LESS DAMAGE would have occurred.

Finally, you have to distinguish between those who investigated and those who merely kibitzed. Just because a lot of kibitzers weigh in on a news story doesn't mean it's a pile-on. Those people were interested because this news story was about people they knew, about people doing the same things they do, about a person they had heard of. It's not any worse than the diner gossip in Peabody would be if somebody uncovered an affair or whatever. That's the downside of interactive media: even the people who aren't involved or don't have specific information get to toss in their two cents.
posted by dhartung at 11:45 AM on May 25, 2001

You know, this is an issue that libraries face all the damned time. It used to be that access to information was kept at "reasonable" levels because it was tough to get ahold of -- when you had to go to the library to get a book, the librarians were the true gatekeepers of a whole bunch of information that many people wanted access to. In the early days of the US, this mean that only rich white men had it. Power was more centralized, and secrets were kept. Mercifully, this has changed.

On the other hand, with this newfound power -- ability to access much more information about other people, for example, than they might feel comfortable with -- comes a heady responsibility. Some people act responsibly, some do not. And, once the info is out, it is tough if not completely impossible to get it back hidden again. The MetaSleuths only serve to highlight a reality about the world we live in.

My personal opiions, for what they're worth, is that it is important to differentiate between facts [soandso didn't exist, soandso said something online, soandso lives in Vermont, soandso slept with my wife] and opinions [soandso is a sick individual, soandso had these motives, soandso is wrong]. Facts can be proven or disproven. Opinions can be bandied about, but evidence is at best, circumstantial. Add to this that you cannot make other people behave in accordance with your opinions about how people ought to behave. As we often say here "wastes your time, annoys the pig"

What can you do about this? Protect your information if it's important to you [that old maxim about not sending email you wouldn't want to see on the side of a barn is a good start], inform others about the realities of situations they may not understand. Lobby gently for your positions, and prepare for dealing with information you may not like or agree with. Prepare to defend your own truths, and live as if you are proud of everything you do.

Every person we add to our community [every one] makes it richer. Each person also makes it larger and more out of our control. Lack of control can be scary but also exhilarating. I'd rather MeFi users were the Keystone Cops than the thought police any day. There are downsides to living in a [sortof] free society and ths is one of them.
posted by jessamyn at 12:25 PM on May 25, 2001

Though I'm happy with how we uncovered a loathsome fraud, I'm concerned about the practice of digging up dirt in an online forum. If we had been wrong about Debbie Swenson, the calls to her community (and her former pastor) could have brought significant undeserved harm to her reputation.

In hindsight, I think it would have been better if the people who were most involved in researching the fraud set up a private mailing list and worked closely together, digging up as much information as possible by online means before any of us made phone calls.

In a highly charged atmosphere where emotions are high and speculation is all over the place, it's easy for someone to get carried away and behave recklessly.
posted by rcade at 3:04 PM on May 25, 2001

me: (I wonder how many people who argue the anti POV on death penalty threads will be participating in the mob.)
norm: Oh, please. That doesn't follow at all. Unless our harassing emails make her drop dead. Then I concede to your brilliance.

Certainly it does. The underlying motivation is the same. People were hurt, they want to see the person or thing which hurt them suffer. Harassing emails don't kill anyone, but they sure as hell can get to them emotionally. It's not a deadly revenge, but it *is* revenge. (Of a particularly feeble sort.)

Point being that people who argue against revenge justice can be just as likely to join in when things get personal.
posted by darukaru at 3:51 PM on May 25, 2001

Jumping in really late to this question. But just for the record . . . Little Richard once said celebrities who don't want their picture taken have no right being stars. That makes a fair amount of sense, I think, unless the person never asked to become a star or didn't know what he or she was getting into at all. There is also of course a fine line between wanting to have your picture taken and not wanting to be harassed day in and day out. In any case, if you don't want anyone ever talking negative about you on the Internet, you have no right putting up 40,000 pictures of yourself on the Internet and trying to project a certain persona. You want total 100 percent privacy? Act like you want to be one. The Debbie quesiton is different, considering we at metafilter didn't know she wanted to be a Net persona of any sort. The rest should either get tougher skins, if they don't have them already, or take their sites down.
posted by raysmj at 5:25 PM on May 27, 2001

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