Five years ago, a despondent gay teen jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his Rutgers University roommate shared secret webcam video of him kissing another young man.
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi instantly became among the best-known victims of online bullying and his family honored his memory by creating a foundation to help keep other young people safe.
“A lot of people think of bullying that only affects kids of the K-12 age. But it goes on into the college age, and if the behavior isn’t corrected at some point it will continue on into the workplace, as well,” said Tyler’s older brother, James Clementi, outreach coordinator for The Tyler Clementi Foundation in New York.
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The summer before Tyler started college in 2010, both he and James came out to each other.
Tyler, who was shy, had never experienced bullying at a younger age, James Clementi told the Miami Herald.
“When Tyler was a student at Rutgers and his roommate webcammed him in an intimate act, he sent out tweets to other students in the dorm and to his followers online. He invaded Tyler’s privacy and outed him as gay to his classmates,” James said. “He took what was meant to be a private experience and made it public.”
James Clementi, 30, believes Tyler “became very socially isolated” when he realized practically all the other dorm students had seen the video or had known what happened.
“None of them reached out to get him help. He spiraled into a state of depression and didn't see that he had any options to get through it,” James said.
The next day, on Sept. 22, 2010, Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge. His roommate eventually was convicted of spying on Tyler.
“The Tyler Clementi Foundation was born out of the urgent need to address the needs of vulnerable populations, especially LGBT and other victims of hostile social environments,” according to its website.
Online media also is responsible for much of the bullying today, said Jane Daugherty, a longtime South Florida journalist who recently launched CORA, the Center for Online Reporting Accountability.
“Tyler Clementi is a case that just breaks my heart,” Daugherty said. The Internet was used to invade his privacy, to shame him, and ultimately he became so despondent over being outed by his roommate on the Internet that he killed himself.”
Daugherty said her group is working to combat online bullying, partnering with the Clementi foundation and other organizations.
“CORA is an attempt to address toxic material presented as news on Internet websites,” Daugherty said. “The material isn’t news. It’s exploitative content designed as click bait to drive up page visits so people can collect advertising dollars.”
Among the worst offenders, she said: A July 16 post by Gawker that named a married (to a woman) Conde Nast executive who nearly hooked up with a gay escort, who then tried to blackmail him.
The story immediately received so many online complaints, Gawker CEO Nick Denton pulled the post a day later.
“The point of this story was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family,” Denton wrote. “Accordingly, I have had the post taken down. It is the first time we have removed a significant news story for any reason other than factual error or legal settlement.”
This month, Columbia Journalism Review named the Gawker story one of the worst pieces of journalism in 2015.
And pulling the story from the website doesn’t undo the harm, Daugherty said. (You can still find all the details via a quick Google search.)
Daugherty calls the original post “irresponsible.”
“That’s not journalism. That’s sensationalism,” she said. “That’s toxic content for profit.”
Daugherty said the privately funded CORA — which doesn’t advocate or seek censorship—is seeking to assemble “an army of viewers” who will notify the organization when “objectionable” stories “are presented as news.”
“What we want to do is tell advertisers — Microsoft and Kellogg and Ford and AT&T are among the biggest advertisers,” Daugherty said. “Does Kellogg’s want its ad for children’s cereal next to a story with toxic content? I don’t think so.”