Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Public Exposure

The Yeshiva University Beacon Scandal and Facebook-Linked Commentary

Recently, a very small corner of the New York Jewish world was rocked by a scandal. A piece of creative writing was published in an undergraduate student publication at Yeshiva University, detailing an unmarried young woman's first sexual experience. The coming-of-age story quickly scandalized the Yeshiva University community--an institution that believes in merging secular knowledge with Orthodox Jewish religious practice, observance, and morality--as many found the subject matter prurient and at odds with Orthodox religious values. The story spread through the Jewish world, and even made its way into the U.S. national news cycle, with publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal picking up the ball.

The scandal is interesting in and of itself, highlighting the familiar tensions that crop up when socially conservative religious belief systems and faith communities exist within a larger secular modernity. The scandal is also topical for the wider Jewish world, as Israelis increasingly find themselves working through the challenges that Ultra-Orthodox groups are posing to women's rights, civil liberty, and religious freedom--a debate currently being waged on the battleground of "feminine modesty" and access to public transportation. Meanwhile, Modern and Ultra-Orthodox communities in the U.S. and abroad are feeling increasingly embattled, as they see their traditions and communities placed under an unwelcome public spotlight. In addition to the culture wars currently going on within Israel, the past year has seen the grisly murder of a child, sex-abuse scandals, and financial fraud arrests rock these traditionally insular communities, events which have sparked a discussion about whether members of these communities are suffering from inadequate access to support and advising regarding "taboo" topics like sexual health, domestic abuse, and mental illness.

When the YU Beacon scandal broke, it generated a lot of internet chatter. I personally became aware of it only a few days ago, and I was intrigued by how the "comments" sections of a lot of the blogs and media sources carrying the story were rife with people struggling to get a handle on its implications. It's a juicy scandal, pitting the values of free speech and expression against concerns of institutional/communal reputation and public morality while still leaving room for discussions about personal agency and religious belief, the adequacy/inadequacy of communal resources and support for individuals who find themselves outside of traditional mores, the specter of whether community and religious leaders are willfully ignoring the shifting needs of their constituents, and even the occasional thumping of an Old Testament by those inclined to thump.

What absolutely shocked me, however, was how many of these opinions were being posted by people under their real names and identities. For instance, heading to the original source, it turns out that The Beacon's commentary section is tied into Facebook accounts. Reading through the commentary, it's quickly apparent that posts are just as flippant as you might expect from a more typical, anonymous internet forum.

For instance, I've never met either Brewster Perry or Alex Schindler, but I now know that, in addition to being imaginary jilted lovers of the girl in the story, one of them attended York University and the other is employed as an editor at Tebah Educational Services. I, and anyone else who navigated to The Beacon via The New York Times, have a front row seat to disagreements between Pesach Barel and Daniel Rogoff, Adam Rosenberg and Mordecai Segall, and Lisa Beth Klien and Gideon Glass. I can put a face to the indignation expressed by Tamar Berger (student at Stern College) or Yitzchok Pink (job: IT Consultant for The Berman Group) without even being logged into a Facebook account.

And of course, because every poster is attached to their Facebook profile, logging in opens up a whole new host of possibilities. Employment histories and educational backgrounds are happily volunteered by people with whom I have no mutual friends. Open walls and photo albums let me know where people went for vacation last month, and I can vouch for the fact that How I Met Your Mother is a popular tv show among people who are inclined to post on The Beacon. Additionally, if I wanted to personally contact any of these individuals, all it takes is a click of the mouse.

It boggles my mind that people would willingly toss out internet opinions alongside their full names, pictures, and geographical location/educational background/employer info. It seems all the more surreal when it turns out that the content of the posts aren't particularly filtered--the familiar prevalence of typos, personal insults, and vulgar expressions are still in the mix despite the complete lack of anonymity.

In short, posting an opinion on a high-traffic website while attached to a Facebook account is a major paradigm shift with regard to online expectations of privacy, but the posting behaviors of individuals imply a lack of concern or awareness about the dramatic increase in their public exposure.

Other Interesting Links Covering the Beacon Scandal:


The Atlantic Wire

Fox News

-- RonMazor - 20 Jan 2012



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r4 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:46:57 - IanSullivan
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