Vitaly Borker thought he had found a new way of making money on the internet. On his website DecorMyEyes.com, Borker marketed cheap knock-off sunglasses as the real thing and added insult to injury by providing the worst possible customer service. As he anticipated, the tidal wave of negative comments boosted his site to Google's first page. When disgruntled customers complained, he responded by threatening to kill or rape them. In one case, he told a customer's boss that his employee was a gay drug dealer. This behavior only increased the flood of complaints, which in turn brought more attention to the website.
In December Vitaly was arrested by postal inspectors and charged with one count each of mail fraud, wire fraud, making interstate threats, and stalking. He was held without bail until April 6, when he was released on $1 million bond on condition of staying at home and off the internet. On some of the charges, Borker clearly had grounds for an insanity plea—he apparently thought he was a member of the Russian Mafia. Unfortunately, there is no legal charge for his most egregious crime, that of being one of the biggest jerks of the 21st century. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges: two counts of sending threatening messages, one of mail fraud, and one of wire fraud.
A sixteen year old student in a Gloucester Country (NJ) high school needed a sense of empowerment, so he took to attacking people on Facebook, threatening physical violence, and phoning in false crime report to the police. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "the teen created a fake Facebook profile as a transfer student.. from outside the area. He threatened a shooting rampage and targeted specific students and teachers, authorities said. The Superintendent of Schools remarked—and this goes along way toward explaining why American kids act this way: "We're obviously disappointed he was involved in this type of activity."
The Internet is the ideal matrix for producing and nourishing Jerks. Everyone in America under 50 seems to have his own blog in which he is free to say absolutely anything—more often nothing—about anything. It is as if pagan gods built their own temples where they could worship themselves when no one else would. And when he is not blogging, the Viral Jerk is anonymously posting offensive comments on more serious websites. The Viral Jerk can become dangerous, when he inserts damaging material on a former friend's social networking site or starts and internet bullying campaign to get even for some imagined personal slight—or just for the fun of it.
Cyber-bullying is now so serious a problem that it is generating business for countless therapists, counselors, and specialized websites. Some of the hysterical accounts and inflated statistics, drummed up for the sake of the business, are hard to believe. According to the experts at isafe.org, 42% of kids who go online have been bullied, and over 50% of them say they have bullied or said offensive things to other kids. Gosh. Can it be true that kids are cruel to each other? Even "back in the day"—as the kids say—back in my day, I got beaten up fairly regularly by bigger boys. (It is true, though, that they/we did not pick on girls.) And the girls, while they rarely got into brawls, made enough nasty remarks to make their victims break out crying. Nonetheless, cyber bullying—a cruel sport engaged in by both sexes and by people of every age—has become a real menace. Some children and adolescents have been driven to suicide by cyber-bullies; others suffer from serious depression.
There are significant difference between cyber bullying and the traditional bullying that went on in schoolyards or village greens. For one thing, the new bullying is global rather than merely local; for another, anyone can be a bully without anyone else realizing it. The anonymity of the internet is like fertilizer for growing Jerks of greater proportions and larger numbers.
A lot of cyber bullying resembles village gossip, but the gossipy village has metastasized into the entire online universe, and the bullies have gained possession of nuclear weapons. Some of them devote their lives to making strangers unhappy. They're known as trolls, because they troll the internet looking for people to embarrass but also because they act like the monsters who lurk under bridges in children's fairy tales. A 20-something from Albuquerque, who calls himself Tyrese Gambol (among other things), trolls the net looking for people in mourning for loved ones. When he finds an obituary on Facebook, he makes rude remarks or inserts nasty pictures. Tyrese offers multiple justifications—a sure sign of the liar: The victims are dead, so what does it matter? Or, some of the people who put up Facebook memorials hardly knew the dead person, and he describes "Grief Tourism" as an obnoxious, selfish habit. As he told the Toronto Sun, Tyrese is really an avenger of bad taste. He also claims that he is paid by Bill Waggoner, the famous "King of Spam." This last claim, though probably false, is a good indication of what sort of people we are dealing with. Waggoner became temporarily infamous when he freely admitted to being one of the kingpins in the Spam campaigns that have bombarded everyone with an email address with promises to "Enlarge Your Package."
PS When our board suggested we shut down comments in order to spare the editors a great deal of unpleasant work, the usual trolls and cyber-jerks who used to make pests of themselves on our website were quick to accuse our webmaster of lying. It was actually I, they claimed to know, who shut off comments in a fit of pique. What more proof did we need?
Actually, I have been suggesting for some time that we set up a better forum for comments, one that will require registration but will give our regular commenters the opportunity not only to respond to columns but also to start their own threads. Our webmaster is already at work on this project.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.