Twitter polls become outlet for cyberbullies

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — An alert for parents about a new form of cyberbullying: It’s happening on Twitter with the relatively new poll feature, and it’s happening in West Michigan.

An anonymous parent tipped off WOOD off to what’s going on. She said her kids were among those who have been targeted.

Each tweet apparently pits local students against each other in awful, offensive categories. In some cases, first and last names are listed. Many polls have well over a hundred votes.

The Twitter accounts are all anonymous and all over local schools — Caledonia, Ottawa Hills and more. One out of East Kentwood reads ‘send polls & don’t snitch.’

WOOD is not naming or showing the specific Twitter handles so as not to further their reach.

Computer Forensics Agent Blair Babcock said it’s a new wave of cyberbullying.

“People think they’re anonymous and so they don’t have the filter that they should have,” Babcock told WOOD Tuesday night.

In Wyoming, police and school leaders weeded out a student behind one of the accounts and parents made sure it was taken down. But another account also focusing on Wyoming Junior High School was among the many that were still active Tuesday and still spewing hurtful words about local kids.

“If I were talking to the kids that are being bullied: You have to tell somebody. Get your school involved. Report it to Twitter, report it to Facebook, or where ever it is,” Babcock said.

While one local school said that it can be tough to find out who’s behind the accounts, Babcock said Twitter is typically very responsive if alerted to this kind of content. WOOD discovered accounts that have been suspended by Twitter, even ones that were active just hours before.

But once one account is removed, another pops up. That’s why Babcock says parents need to step in.

“If you teach your kids to be concerned about the people who are victimized by this and to care about those kids, first of all, it helps those kids, but it also helps your kids not participate in the bullying part of it,” he said.

Babcock said it’s also important to monitor your child’s online activity.

“As a parent, you can’t just let that phone or let that computer be. That’s not your job as a parent. Your job as a parent is to monitor that,” Babcock said.

He acknowledged that doing so can be very difficult:

“It can. I’ve had three (kids) that have gone through, graduated and they’re off in the real world. But I’ve gone through it with the three of them — and I’m sure sometimes they told their friends how to mean their dad was,” Babcock said.

WOOD checked with a local attorney to see the polls constitute a crime. He said it’s a gray area. Content-based restrictions on speech are typically not favored because of the First Amendment.

But Michigan schools are required by law to have anti-bullying policies in place and students could be subject to discipline if they are caught. There are ways for authorities to find out who’s behind the accounts.

Those people could be subject to civil liability for defamation if one of the targets wanted to sue.

WOOD reached out to Twitter seeking comment, but hadn’t heard back as of late Tuesday night.

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