'Cyber-chumps' Are Net's Big Victims
by Andrew Vachss
Despite the pious bleating of self-serving politicians and hidden-agenda "public service" organizations, the major menace lurking on the Internet is neither kiddie porn nor Mr. Wrong. The peril isn't proliferation of race-hate ugliness or lunatic conspiracy theories. The real danger of the Internet is seduction of the arrogantly ignorant.
Yes, the Internet is used by predatory pedophiles to worm their way past the inadequate defenses of children. And by kiddie-porn profiteers to "test market" their foul product. But crime chases dollars, and that evil market was established long before the Internet surfaced. If the Net shut down tomorrow, such traffic would still flourish.
(At this point it is necessary to add that I believe kiddie porn can be banished from the Internet. The whining of self-styled "constitutionalists" aside, kiddie pornography is not a First Amendment issue. It is not "speech"—it is a photograph of a crime, a predator's trophy, as illegal as it is immoral. I applaud the action of search engines such as AltaVista, which have shut down some of the slimy traffic, and I look forward to even more effective counter-measures.)
The Internet is a form of technology, and technology is neutral. While technology has always aided criminals, it has also aided those who pursue them. The same Polaroid camera that enabled freaks to practice one-stop-shop kiddie porn helped child protective caseworkers to document child abuse on-site, thus establishing a rock-solid "chain of custody" for later courtroom proceedings. The serial killer's knife removes human hearts—the surgeon's scalpel cuts out cancer. It is the hand, not the tool, that determines the result.
Lonely Hearts killers existed way before the Internet, but nobody has ever seriously considered shutting down the U.S. Postal Service (at least not for that reason).
If you want race hate, you can always tune into the short-wave bands, or add yourself to one of their insidious fax chains.
Conspiracy loons wouldn't disappear if you closed down the Internet—in fact they would instantly craft some alien-CIA-satanic cult explanation of that—unless we figured out how to close down mental illness at the same time.
No, the real danger is to that vast army of mostly (but not exclusively) young people who affect an oh-so-blasé cynicism but are, in fact, the newest breed of volunteer victim ... the cyber-chump.
Cyber-chumps may spend hours and hours on the Net, but their central intellectual characteristic is laziness. A negative answer to the foundation question "Do you have e-mail?" is a guarantee of no further communication. Some of them even complain if a Website URL is too long. Cyber-chump "research" means if you can't click it on, it's just too much trouble.
But we've had generations like that before. What differentiates this one is its abject, unquestioning worship of the sacred Net. If it's up there, it must be true.
That scares me. I personally know of cases where individuals have self-created a total persona ... and then went hunting. It's terrifyingly simple: First the phony creates an Internet "magazine." All it takes is keystrokes. Then he does a "story": on himself, using a made-up name as the "reporter's" byline. Next he posts that story (and other similar fabrications) on Websites devoted to a particular topic—say, child abuse survivors—and provides links to another Website of his own creation, allegedly devoted to the same topic. That Website refers anyone inquiring to an "organization" headed by ... guess who?
If you want his "credentials," well you can either check the magazines which defer to him as an authority and report his non-existent exploits, or you can e-mail any of the many "references" he'll gladly provide. They're all himself, of course. The non-existent organization periodically issues press releases and spams every e-mail address it can find. At least one cyber-chump will pick up the ball and run with it. Soon the lie has life. And the liar has a constituency.
Legitimate Websites can be imitated. Impostors can be anyone they want. Incest victims are pouring their guts out to "warriors against child abuse" who are, in truth, sadistic freaks entertaining themselves with the pain of others. Souls are being stolen. Reputations are being destroyed. One single obsessive with a modem can intrude upon, alter, and even endanger human lives.
And while e-mail promises instant intimacy, what it does not deliver is privacy. But cyber-chumps persist in their self-destructive ways ... and risk a lot more than disclosure of their credit card numbers.
The worst computer virus of all is downloadable stupidity. Why have we invested so much time in firewalls to protect our data but not one minute in protecting our intellectual integrity from corruption?
The answer is that we are fast developing a separate and distinct "Internet culture," populated by those who have no concept of fact checking, no sense of sourcing ... those who persist in deluding themselves that their research is valid simply because they "found it on the Net."
Cyber-chumps "trust the Net" as fundamentalists do the Bible. That trust has great capacity to promote predators. Darwin dictates that, without skepticism, intellect dies. That's the danger, people. And it's very, very real.
© 1997 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Andrew Vachss is a New York-based lawyer who represents children and youth only.
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