Gossip Web Site's Smear Tactics

Juicycampus.com, the Web site for campus gossip that urges students to "just give us the juice," has been popular since it arrived at Princeton earlier this winter. Postings entitled "Most overrated Princeton student" and "Sluttiest Girl," along with another discussing who was rejected by Princeton's eating clubs, were viewed more than 10,000 times, according to the school paper, the Daily Princetonian. Princeton has fewer than 5,000 undergraduates. Princeton is no different from many other college campuses; since its inception last summer, Juicycampus (which has no affiliation with Princeton) has spread to about 50 colleges and universities. It's hard to know what is true and what is not in the postings, and some of them are benign or just letting off steam. But many are crude and mean.

I thought about Juicycampus as I prepared for a class in a journalism course I teach at Princeton. This week we are discussing ways in which the press can be used for good or evil. Juicycampus reminds me of the phenomenon of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the demagogue from Wisconsin who fed a Red Scare in the early 1950s by smearing government officials, who were usually innocent, as Communists or security risks.

McCarthy was clever about exploiting a weakness in the press. In those days there were many more newspapers, both morning and afternoon, and they competed with each other for scoops. In his book "Senator Joe McCarthy" Richard Rovere described how McCarthy played the reporters: "He invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in—they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov's dogs at the clang of a bell—and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning. This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: 'NEW MCCARTHY REVELATIONS AWAITED IN CAPITAL'."

With the press on its tippy-toes that afternoon, McCarthy might charge one or another government employee, while waving documents that he claimed as "proof." Rushing for deadlines, the press would excitedly print the charge—after all, allegations of treason in the federal government, made on the record by a U.S. senator, were newsworthy. The charges were bogus, but the denials and refutations never quite caught up with the initial banner headlines.

So it goes on Juicycampus. The bullies and gossips have found a way of exploiting a new medium—the Internet—to have their fun. Unlike McCarthy, who craved publicity, the modern-day campus blowhards thrive on anonymity. But they are alike in knowing how to use the medium of the moment to attract large audiences to smear individuals, who have no effective recourse. The Juicycampus smut purveyors are enabled by fellow students who flock to the site for amusement or distraction. A few are starting to push back, essentially by filibustering—posting the entire U.S. Constitution or the Bible's Book of Revelation in order to clog or break a thread. But Juicycampus seems to have no shortage of readers. They may not believe everything or even most of what they view. Students, of course, are not government officials who lost jobs during the McCarthy era. But the experience is pretty harsh for the individuals whose names are being posted.

Juicycampus.com founder Matt Ivester, a Duke graduate, calls the site "a fun place to hang out on the internet," in an interview with the Princetonian. He says the site allows readers to publish their comments anonymously "so they could post the things that most interested them without being afraid of the repercussions they could face from school administrators, professors or whatever. We want people to be honest on our site." The site was created, according to language located under its "About Us" tab, "for the simple mission of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses. Juicycampus.com promises posters that "it is not possible for anyone to use this website to find out who you are or where you are located." But it also prohibits users from posting any content that is "unlawful, threatening, abusive, tortious, defamatory, obscene, libelous, or invasive of another's privacy," according the site's terms and conditions, by which all users are bound.

McCarthy was able to keep up his witch hunts for about four years. Finally, a few in the press, like CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, stood up to him. At a congressional hearing a smart lawyer, Joseph Welch, asked McCarthy about a smear of one young man and inquired, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" The hearing was seen by many millions on another relatively new medium, television.

People largely stopped paying attention to McCarthy after that. Let's hope it doesn't take four years before the students turn away from Juicycampus. And that, in the meantime, Juicycampus doesn't spread to high schools.