Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mean gossip website seen as cyber-bullying

City police told U.S.-based site not illegal

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It's a nasty gossip website that allows an anonymous commenter to call a 22-year-old Winnipeg woman "stupid" and a "joke" and then broadcast her photos to the world.

Kari Anderson, however, has the guts to call the website what it really is: cyber-bullying that could hurt people who are younger or less confident than her.

One local mental-health worker says the website -- which allows people to post vicious photographs and criticism online -- could hurt people who are vulnerable, or increase a person's risk of suicide. Anderson said she was alerted to an insulting online comment about her when it was posted Wednesday, but she chose not to read it.

"My friends are my true friends," said Anderson. "The people that I actually consider part of my life know that I'm nothing like that.

"So, it really doesn't change anybody's perspective about me."

Anderson's not the only Winnipegger featured on the site, which carries vile postings about women and men from across North America. Postings about Winnipeggers date back to March 2010, but the site -- which the Free Press is not identifying -- has only recently garnered media coverage in the city.

The site bills itself as a place for "gossip and satire." A tag line says "the content that is published contains rumours, speculation, assumptions, opinions and factual information. Postings may contain erroneous or inaccurate information."

This past week, the mother of a Winnipeg man featured on the website contacted police to lodge a complaint. However, she said, that was "pointless."

"Cyber-bullying comes in all ages. It's not just the children that are victims of this. It's women and men, and it's being referred to as 'gossip,' but gossip hurts and it can hurt people's careers," the woman said, calling the website "legalized bullying."

"We're teaching our kids in school we're not allowed to bully, but if you're an adult and you do it online, it's OK."

Sara Riel Inc. is a charitable organization in the city offering a variety of mental-health services to adults. Christina Von Schindler, the organization's manager of community services, said she's concerned by the content on the website.

"Even thinking about having my child or a loved one or myself posted, you start to experience those natural feelings of anger and helplessness, and anger and helplessness internalizes depression and shame," said Von Schindler.

"If you think about how dealing with all that might make life difficult for the healthiest of us, now consider how that might make somebody who's already got a vulnerability feel.

"Ask very valid questions... 'Who looks at this? Who looks at this site? Consider who the audience might be, and do you really care?

"How much does it affect your life that this information might be out there about you for the people viewing this site?"

The man who runs the website, who is reportedly based in the United States, did not respond to a request for comment Friday. A Winnipeg Police Service spokeswoman said the force was aware of the website and had been in touch with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about it.

Winnipeg police were told the website wasn't illegal, she said.

Ross Feinstein, public affairs officer for DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the website is not currently under investigation.

"It's not really in the purview of the Department of Homeland Security -- or actually, (I can) specifically say Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- to seize websites due to freedom of speech," he said.

"We obviously deal with transnational crime, we deal with immigration-related issues, we deal with intellectual property rights and counterfeit goods, and we deal with child pornography. I don't think this website falls into any of those categories."

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2011 B2

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