By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
When renowned comedian and actor Robin Williams committed suicide from asphyxiation, daughter and half Filipina Zelda Williams discovered a hard truth about social media. It has two sides. There’s a nice, caring side and a downright ugly side.
Zelda is the daughter from Williams’ second marriage to Filipino American Marsha Garces. Garces met Williams when she became the nanny to Williams’ son Zachary (from his first wife). Garces and Williams had two children, Zelda and Cody, before divorcing in 2010.
Initially, after her father’s death, the messages pouring in from Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram provided warmth and support for Zelda Williams. While celebrity deaths often generate a healthy number of Internet responses, it seemed that the whole world had gathered on social media channels to provide their respect for Robin Williams. After all, this was a comedian that several generations had grown up with, laughed with, and followed their dreams with. He was a cross-dressing nanny, the genie, Peter Pan, the gay owner of a drag queen club, that guy who made Flubber.
But despite all the warm memories and despair, it’s never long until the Internet “trolls” come rolling in. Two anonymous Twitter users, @PimpStory and @MrGooseBuster, started sending Zelda Williams gruesome, altered images of her father, showing bruises around his neck and blaming her for his death.
“Please report @PimpStory @MrGoosebuster. I’m shaking. I can’t. Please. Twitter requires a link and I won’t open it. Don’t either. Please,” Zelda Williams wrote in a tweet she has since deleted.
Shortly after, she swore off social media for an undetermined amount of time. “I’m sorry. I should’ve risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye,” she wrote in her last tweet on Aug. 12.
Zelda Williams’ cyber bullying, and the ensuing backlash from supporters, now has Twitter officials rethinking their policy to prevent similar cases in the future.
“We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter,” Del Harvey, VP of Trust and Safety, said in a statement. “We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.”
The issue is hardly unique to Zelda Williams. Cyber bullying has been around since the very first chat room was invented. A large majority of the victims have been women or people from a minority background. In September of 2010, a college student at Rutgers University advertised a livestream of his roommate, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, kissing another man. Though the livestream never took place, Clementi left a note on Facebook saying he was going to commit suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His body was found in the Hudson River on Sept. 29, 2010.
In 2012, British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd was convinced by a stranger to become topless on video chat. When that stranger continued to stalk her relentlessly and used the photo as blackmail, circulating it on the Internet, she eventually created a YouTube video detailing the events leading up to her suicide. The video reached over 17 million views and she committed suicide on Oct. 12, 2012.
In October of 2013, two teenage girls were arrested on aggravated stalking charges when their cyber bullying was believed to contribute to the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick.
A Google search will reveal many cases of cyber bullying leading to suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate for teens went from 9.7 in 2007 to 10.5 in 2010, the highest rate it’s been in more than a decade. While it’s hard to pin the number entirely on social media and cyber bullying, many agree that it is certainly a new element in today’s world.
In a long, checkered history of bullying on the Internet, abuse on Twitter is just the latest trend.
Take Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media and News, for example. While she was all too familiar with facing harassment, she had one especially adamant pursuer who would make new anonymous Twitter accounts every day to harass her. In an interview with the Washington Post, she said, “The worst one was he put my name in his Twitter handle — ‘JennPoznerFan’ — and he would steal my pictures from Flickr, or [on his feed], there would be my face photoshopped onto porn images of women being humiliated.” In her research, she has encountered rape threats, threats against people’s families, and racial slurs on Twitter, especially against women and people of color.
“Zelda has become this poster child, but what that overlooks is that Twitter, in particular, has become a place for abuse, and for women and people of color in particular. The company knows it and has done precious little about it,” Pozner told the Washington Post.