Monday, December 29, 2008

Sarah Palin's mis-adventures in cyberspace

I am thinking a lot about the Internet lately--the fact that it brings so many good things into our lives as well as many problems that we may not have anticipated, may of which we have no way of opting out of, no matter what our behavior or personal choices.

My Mojo Mom Pocast co-host Sheryl Grant studies technology for a living now, and she's convinced me that as parents, it is really important that we use new technologies in our own lives, to personally experience phenomena like social networking. That way we understand what our kids are going through, everything from safety issues, to dealing with that old "high school" pit-in-the-stomach feeling of realizing that your friends took a trip together and didn't invite you, once you see their photos uploaded to Facebook. That's a totally legit use of Facebook, with normal human consequences. I'll be honest and admit that Facebook does occasionally evoke feelings that I haven't felt since high school! Imagine how a real high-schooler might feel now that one's popularity is so visible.

I am giving a brief talk on these issues later today and Sarah Palin came to mind as an example of one person's misadventures in cyberspace. Of course when she was catapulted into the spotlight this August, a virtual unknown in the media's eyes, her digital dossier began to show up very quickly. Many of her professional gaffes came to light as a result of a combination of traditional media and viral videos. However, I was really struck by the extent that she was actually cyberbullied in ways that were beyond her control, that had nothing to do with her actual behaviors or qualifications. Not surprisingly (but very depressingly), this is where a ton of sexism crept in to the picture, in some shocking forms that were not even called out by media feminists.

Here is my brief list of Sarah Palin internet phenomena from Fall 2008. I am writing this as a quick draft, so if you can think of other incidents, please leave a comment. Whether or not you like Sarah Palin, I think these examples are instructive for all of us.

Sarah Palin's misadventures in cyberspace

Palin announces that her daughter Bristol was pregnant, and boyfriend Levi Johnson's knuckleheaded MySpace page is immediately reported and widely publicized. Bristol's pregnancy is announced in part to debunk another blogosphere rumor that Trig Palin is actually Bristol's baby, and that Sarah faked a pregnancy to claim him as her child.

A Photoshopped image of Sarah Palin's head on an American-flag-bikini-wearing, gun-toting woman's body is circulated.

Sarah Palin's Yahoo email account is hacked and taken over when someone guesses the password based on statements she made in the media about where she met her husband Todd. The hacker changes the password, takes over the account, and Palin's personal emails and photos are released.

A viral email is sent out with a list of books that Palin allegedly wanted banned from the Wasilla public library. This email is later debunked.

Palin's poor performance during interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson are broadcast on TV, and then take on a life of their own the video clips are distributed online.

Saturday Night Live actors Tina Fey and Amy Poehler create instant-classic parodies of these interviews ("I can see Russia from my house!") which are also popular viral videos and reach people who don't watch SNL's live broadcast.

Most disturbingly, in my judgment, is that Hustler's Larry Flynt shoots a Palin-lookalike porn video called "Who's Nailin' Palin." The porn video is distributed online, and so-called "safe for work" clips are published as a "spoof" and joked about uncritically on mainstream blogs including's Broadsheet blog and The Huffington Post.

While the video may be legally protected free speech, it's despicable. I was very disappointed to see excerpts posted online by some of the sites I usually respect. It was normalizing the video, which is inflicting virtual sexual violence on a female political candidate. I was so disappointed that feminists did not come to Palin's defense on this one. What message does it send to any woman who is thinking about stepping into the public eye to run for office, to know that those who step onto the highest stage are fair fame for sexual humiliation of this kind? (In addition to the Hillary Clinton "Nutcracker" line of thinking.)

So the online dimension has added a lot to the media, to public debate. Again, so much is out of our control. A teenager can be cyberbullied whether she or he is even actually online. Someone can instigate a cybersmear campagign of many varieties even if we are 100% responsible in our individual behavior. Still, life on the 'net can be a wonderful way to maintain frienships, start or cement new ones, speak up, and participate in democracy. We parents need to get right in there alongside our kids, as safely as we can. But it's clear from some of the bullying that Palin experienced that we need to look at the big picture of how people are behaving toward one another online. As the Megan Meier/Lori Drew MySpace suicide/harrassment case has shown us, the online world is evolving much faster than our public policies and laws.

As Internet Safety expert Linda Criddle has taught me, these issues aren't just about "irresponsible teens" and "uncaring parents." In fact the largest leaker of private information is the government, which exposes each of us to identity theft just through the basic information it posts about us every day. The Freedom of Information Act and privacy concerns have not been reconciled. That's a subject for a fuller post on another day, but in the meantime I highly recommend Linda's website,

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