Cyberstalking Hype
   By Lewis Z. Koch Special To Inter@ctive Week, [4]Inter@ctive Week
   May 25, 2000 3:13 PM PT
   'Common sense and some growing anecdotal evidence would tell you that
   cyberstalking is a growing problem," said Associate Deputy Attorney
   General John Bentivoglio, who handles cybercrime and cyberstalking
   issues at the Department of Justice. That's when alarm bells went off
   in my head.
   More than three decades ago, on my third day as a cub reporter at
   Chicago's City News Bureau, a hulking, menacing, slovenly city editor
   named Arnold Dornfeld lumbered up to me and asked, "Does your mother
   love ya, chum?"
   "Yes," I responded eagerly.
   "How d'ya know?"
   I coughed nervously and mumbled, "Of course she does."
   "Call her and check." I looked for a smile on his face. There was
   none. Then he leaned in and said, "Call her or you're fired."
   I quickly dialed my mother, asked the question, got a positive reply,
   hung up and looked at Dornfeld. "She said she loves me."
   Dornfeld looked deep into my eyes and said, without a shred of humor,
   "Now you know."
   Would that Bentivoglio had deigned to "call and check."
   Is cyberstalking a plague, an international menace or a rare crime?
   There are problems on the Internet - some real, others minuscule, many
   imaginary. There are criminal financial dealings on the Net, child
   porn and child molesters, dope dealers and terrorists. It's like life
   - real and, at times, grim, ugly and desperate.
   But when it comes to cyberstalking, there's little justification for
   the hysteria.
   Joel Best, chairman of the Department of Sociology at the University
   of Delaware, in his brilliant, impeccably researched and highly
   readable book Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New
   Victims, had the sense to check out the stalking situation and found
   it to be wildly overblown.
   The news media, in Best's analysis, is perpetually in need of new,
   attention-grabbing stories, a new crime wave or menace. This style of
   journalism, Best said, forms just one side of what he called an "iron
   Side 1 - Sensation mongers. Frenzy and melodrama are the very stuff of
   life for reporters and editors. They sell newspapers and magazines,
   drive TV ratings higher and alarm the public.
   Side 2 - Pandering politicians. Elected officials hold public hearings
   and give "outraged" speeches and interviews, call for new legislation
   that, of course, justifies their salaries and their re-election.
   Bureaucrats churn out reports like beavers building a dam.
   Side 3 - Trendy academics/experts/problem solvers. The existence of
   "problems" opens the door to academics who need to "study" the
   problems over time. Meanwhile, quotable "experts and problem solvers"
   call for budget and personnel increases to combat the problems defined
   by the academics.
   Side 4 - Activists in search of a new agenda. There is an almost
   unlimited number of potential Internet addicts/victims, all of whom
   need care. Activists and professional advocates make themselves
   available to the new marketplace of victims.
   This iron quadrangle has already taken real-life hostage. Next stop:
   the Internet.
   A perfect example of the iron quadrangle at work is the assessment of
   cyberstalking. How serious is it? The alleged number of stalkers in
   the U.S. is 200,000. That number has been floating around for eight
   years. The reporter who first reported it in 1992 can't exactly recall
   his source. Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael picked it up that
   year. California, with one actual stalking murder case, passed its
   antistalking law in 1992. Twenty-nine other states quickly followed
   with similar laws that year. Eighteen more states and the District of
   Columbia followed in 1993, triggered, it appears, by exactly two other
   stalking death cases in the nation.
   Three cases in all. Tragic, yes - but three cases in a nation of 270
   million people. Yet activists immediately equated stalking with
   "violence against women/domestic violence," which allowed for
   plague-sized numbers. That is how a group called CyberAngels came up
   with the numbers of 63,000 Internet stalkers and 474,000 victims
   worldwide, numbers even Bentivoglio's 1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A
   New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry warned in a footnote
   were "statistics from unspecified sources." How many specific
   cyberstalking cases does Bentivoglio's report cite? Six.
   I asked Bentivoglio, if the data gathered from the stalking survey
   proved wrong, wouldn't his report's extrapolation of the extent of the
   problem be wrong as well. "Sure," he allowed.
   Although the report is replete with words such as "trends" and
   "evidence," there is little factual support. Everything rests on a
   single study. The report describes it as a "large study on sexual
   victimization of college women, by researchers at the University of
   Cincinnati." It was a national telephone survey of 4,446 randomly
   selected women attending two- and four-year institutions of higher
   As defined by the study, a stalking incident was anytime someone
   answered "yes" to the question: Has someone "repeatedly followed you,
   watched you, phoned, written, e-mailed or communicated with you in
   other ways that seemed obsessive and made you afraid or concerned for
   your safety." A veritable fruit salad of offenses and a wide range of
   reactions, but, hey, let's leave that aside.
   The study claims that of the 13.1 percent who said they were stalked,
   "24.7 percent of the stalking incidents involved e-mail." In effect,
   Bentivoglio concluded, "25 percent of stalking incidents among college
   women could be classified as involving cyberstalking."
   Only it's not true, at least according to one of the study's authors -
   Francis T. Cullen, research professor at the University of Cincinnati,
   the highly regarded past editor of Justice Quarterly and the Journal
   of Crime and Justice, and the former president of the Academy of
   Criminal Justice Sciences.
   Cullen dismissed the cyber side of the stalking study, noting it only
   included a "couple of questions" related to the "cyberstalking area,"
   and those questions were "not detailed." Cullen said that of those
   "couple of questions," no samples of threatening e-mail had been
   obtained, the questions were on a "general level," the study was "not
   a study of cyberstalking per se" and, "unfortunately," the research
   was conducted at such a level that, "other than knowing something had
   occurred, we actually don't know much about it."
   What we're left with is a suspicious statistical extrapolation and a
   nearly nonexistent, shockingly weak study of cyberstalking that wasn't
   even a study of cyberstalking in the first place. If a reporter had
   handed Dornfeld this report, he would have torn it up, tossed it back
   and said, "Check it out, chum - and next time, come back with facts."