Live by Snapchat, die by YouTube.
The explosion of social media is a remarkable thing, allowing humankind to reach out from our basements and give the world a hug, become instantly famous or more commonly, show the world ourselves at our weakest and dumbest.
The latter is what happened this week when a couple of kids used Snapchat, which allows short video messages that disappear in a few seconds, to yell insults and racial epithets at a Prior Lake teen.
The girl’s father found out, and after the fourth racist message to her, Brad Knudson used his phone to make a video of the exchange between the twin brothers and his black adopted daughter. What a few years ago would have been a talk on the phone between two dads and a reprimand to the kids turned into viral spanking for all parties involved.
Knudson tried to reach the bullies’ parents, but they never returned his calls or answered their door. So he called the police. That may seem extreme, until you realize that a teen that the Knudsons knew had recently committed suicide after being bullied.
Police contacted the school and officers there had a chat with the kids. Knudson also wanted to talk with the bullies’ dad about his kids’ behavior. Seems reasonable.
The dad, Deron Puro, was less than receptive to the call.
He told Knudson he had no problem with the kids using the N-word, that in fact they used it around the house. He called Knudson “crazy” for being concerned. Knudson hung up the phone.
Later, Puro called back and, in a stunning lack of awareness, left taunting voice mails on Knudson’s phone, reiterating the racial slurs, and more.
Knudson had had enough. He told Puro he was going to post the whole thing on the Internet. Puro said he could care less and that he and his kids owned the behavior.
As of Saturday, Knudson’s video had more than 3 million views. News of it spread around the country in the unstoppable vortex of the Internet. Someone even set up a Twitter account and posted Puro’s phone number, address and other unflattering public information. Great idea: Bully the bully!
Puro was fired from his job, took down his Facebook page and disconnected his phone. On Friday, the Puro family issued an apology, surprising no one by saying Deron was under the influence of pills and alcohol and didn’t remember the phone calls. The children had been moved out of state because of threats from nitwits purporting to rally against racism and bullying.
The Internet had won.
But nothing is really that simple.
On Thursday, Knudson discovered that his daughter had also engaged in some racial banter, using the same word twice on Snapchat “thinking that this was a game and it was funny,” Knudson wrote in the YouTube comments section.
“I am extremely saddened and disappointed because of this video she has discredited the message that we wanted to convey,” Knudson wrote. “I hope that this does not stop our efforts to highlight the issues that still remain regarding bully[ing] and the effects it has on children.”
Some lashed out at Knudson, criticizing him for taking the issue too seriously and causing Puro to lose his job and privacy.
Knudson’s phone is also now disconnected.
It’s clear that the participants in this drama are no longer in control of it, and that it has changed their lives.
I certainly sympathize with Knudson’s reaction to the bullying. Reporters at a newspaper get a fair share of racist calls and e-mails, so there is no surprise those attitudes exist. They make us mad. In the rare cases when someone sends a racist rant from their work e-mail — it does happen — I have forwarded them back to the place where they work — after giving the writer a chance to apologize.
Brendan Watson, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, said this incident is a complicated social lesson. “It’s about social media, race, hatred and where kids learn those behaviors,” he said.
“Back in the day if you were bullied at school, you came home and had a safe haven,” said Watson. “Now kids can bully other kids at their homes.”
In the YouTube video, Watson sees “a clearly loving father” who “went on YouTube with pure intentions,” but he could also be seen as someone who used the Internet as a weapon against a person he didn’t know.
Watson said there is even a page on Tumblr that encourages people to target those who post racist comments online, then find their employers and try to get them fired.
Knudson probably didn’t foresee the traction the issue would get. “These things can be public in a way you can’t anticipate,” said Watson.
“The Internet is a powerful way to shed light on these things, but it can take on a life of its own,” Watson said. “These things can also backfire, especially when children are involved.”
That’s how we got to a place where some childish name-calling ended up as a national hate fest. Every time a potential employer Googles Puro or Knudson, the first thing that will pop up is this Internet battle.
More important is the fact that there are no do-overs on the Internet and the kids involved will drag this with them for a long time.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin