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In small towns, reputations rise and fall on anonymous community websites. Gossip moves to the cyberworld

September 23, 2011

The New York Times reports on how in small towns, vicious and anonymous gossip  is spread through web forums.  While legal action can be taken to reveal the identity of the gossiper, will it  restore  the reputation of the townsperson anonymously smeared?  Rumors create doubt even if countered.  As the New York Times reporter recognize, few in small towns could afford the great expense of suing an out-of-town website in order to determine the identity of the gossiper.  What are the damages?  It is very hard to prove because as a nation, we want to encourage freedom of speech and set the bar high.   The Times reports:

In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious

Steve Hebert for The New York Times

Mountain Grove, Mo., where a Web forum is supplanting diners like Dee’s Place as a place for news and rumor.


MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. — In the small towns nestled throughout the Ozarks, people like to say that everybody knows everybody’s business — and if they do not, they feel free to offer an educated guess.

Jennifer James, who says she was a victim of an online smear.

One of the established places here for trading the gossip of the day is Dee’s Place, a country diner where a dozen longtime residents gather each morning around a table permanently reserved with a members-only sign for the “Old Farts Club,” as they call themselves, to talk about weather, politics and, of course, their neighbors.

But of late, more people in this hardscrabble town of 5,000 have shifted from sharing the latest news and rumors over eggs and coffee to the Mountain Grove Forum on a social media Web site called Topix, where they write and read startlingly negative posts, all cloaked in anonymity, about one another.

And in Dee’s Place, people are not happy. A waitress, Pheobe Best, said that the site had provoked fights and caused divorces. The diner’s owner, Jim Deverell, called Topix a “cesspool of character assassination.” And hearing the conversation, Shane James, the cook, wandered out of the kitchen tense with anger…

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