It seems like the perfect story of using social media to stand up for yourself. But what if it isn’t?
In April, colorful sports personality and German high-jumper Ariane Friedrich took to her Facebook fan page to out a cyberstalker. After receiving emails with explicit photographs, Ariane contacted the authorities but then decided to take further action. She posted excerpts of the email along with the stalker’s name, email address, and city where he lives on her Facebook fan page.
Ariane said she had been the subject of similar messages and didn’t want to just sit there and do nothing about it. She wrote:
It’s time to act, it’s time to defend myself. And that’s what I’m doing. No more and no less. I’m not willing to be a victim again. I’m simply tired and there simply comes a time when enough is enough.
Ariane may be an unknown name to US sports fans but she receives a lot of attention in Germany. Partly due to her kaleidoscopic hair (which can be platinum blonde one day, bright pink the next) and partly due to the fact that she lives in Germany where they love David Hasselhoff (I’m just saying a high jumper is far more interesting than the Hoff). She’s also a police officer. Which makes her actions even more interesting.
Because we’d all like this to be the open and shut case of a woman standing up for herself and putting a cyberstalker in his place. It is 100% true that nobody should be allowed to send unwanted photos of their genitals to another person and Ariane should not have to put up with that.
But what if the person she outed on Facebook didn’t do anything? Someone sent her those photos and emails, no doubt. But was it the person she claimed it was?
That’s the debate going on right now in Germany. It’s a mixture of properly identifying the stalker, which would make it very difficult for anyone to side with him, and the strict German privacy laws which prohibit such publications. German newspapers, for example, do not publish names of offenders so that they are not marked as felons after their release. And, let’s be honest, Germany still has some sensitivity over recording information about people so they tend to be hyper-vigilant on the privacy front.
Ariane’s outing also comes on the heels of a recent lynch mob that formed in the German town of Emden. In March, an 11-year old girl was murdered and a 17-year old boy was arrested shortly after. The police let the public know that the 17-year old was the chief suspect which led to a flurry of traditional and social media commentary. On the social media front, those comments turned into calls for justice, then violence, and a lynch mob formed in front of the local police station.
Problem is, the 17-year old didn’t do it. He was quickly cleared, but the accusation had done its damage and he and his family were forced into hiding. Now the authorities are in a tricky situation as they go after individuals who were inciting violence because of the police department’s announcement.
It isn’t hard to find stories of people falsely accused on social media. That’s not a new threat–people were falsely accused and lynch mobs formed before social media. But in an age where we are both much more traceable (IP addresses, social media accounts, cell phone numbers) and much more anonymous (no authentication, free email addresses, anonymous social platforms) the danger can be heightened. Should a police officer be more sensitive to this issue even though she’s a target of the disgusting activities?
As for Ariane, it remains to be seen if the person she outed is the person who sent the email. But it’s a fascinating predicament. If she’s right, won’t we all think “Good for her!”? But if she’s wrong, what will we think?