The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Politicians, Crimes and Misdemeanors in Cyberspace

Politicians are being whiplashed by careless, speedy internet uploads.

NYC Skyline
I was recently interviewed by a New York reporter who was writing a piece about William F. Boyland, Jr., a four-term, 40-year old Democratic state assemblyman from Brooklyn. On March 10, 2011, Boyland was among eight individuals (including another State legislator) who "surrendered" to face charges in a federal corruption case.

Relevant to this blog, according to the reporter, months before his arrest, Boyland appears to have been playing the online game CityVille. A casual, social, city-building

simulation game on Facebook, it allows anyone, anywhere, to build their dream city from the ground up.  Sweet.

Here's the interesting little fact: Records show that after his indictment was handed down, Boyland started to play Mayor of Cityville with even more frequency. Ten, twelve times a day, there would be posts on the wall, showing he'd been doing something in the

William Boyland, Jr.
game, RATHER THAN ATTENDING ASSEMBLY SESSIONS. Oops, Gotcha!

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During our email correspondence before the actual interview, the reporter wrote, "One thing I found really interesting, that I hoped you could touch on, is the relationship between the actual contours of the game, and his [Boyland's] job." She intimated that Boyland, in real life, as representative of a struggling district, has been largely ineffective.  He sponsored no bills this session, and missed more than a third of the scheduled days of the session. A check of the records supported her comments.

In CityVille, however, wearing his avatar hat, Boyland is the benevolent mayor of his own town who helps by planting flowers to earn points for beautification and helps the police in catching criminals.

She ended saying, "It seems too pat...in real life he's the bad guy, and in the game, he's the good guy catching them."

Mulling over her comments, it seemed as though effective political life was far more difficult than Boyland may have thought or was equipped to master. Several terms of struggle and failure conceivably led to disillusionment, making him open to the co-option and corruption by other corrupt New York politicians.  He wouldn't be the first.

How does this connect with Boyland's intensifying CityVille immersion and possible game addiction and, if I were being really Freudian, ritual "undoing" of his failures and the salving of his shattered ego-ideal in the world of Cityville he created?  If I were really being Freudian...

Moral: when life fails you--or you fail in life--as a politician, what do you do? Boyland's answer, tune in, drop out, start again, and follow your dream in CityVille.

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There's a classic 1993 Peter Steiner New Yorker cartoon where one dog working at the computer advises another, "On the Internet no one knows you're a dog."

To paraphrase in the present political setting, On the internet nobody knows you're a failed, New York State Representative who was indicted in March on charges of corruption and of taking bribes over the course of a decade in schemes grand and petty.

Rep. Anthony Weiner
Facebook, cyberspace, virtual reality. It all smacks of Rep. Weiner's pre-resignation circumstances -- living in an alternate, reality, without the sex of course;

Weiner and Boyland: Both are politicians, both are New Yorkers, both hung out in an alternate universe and promenaded in social media that afforded more gratifying self-images, be they a cute, effective, mayoral avatar or congressional stud muffin.  Different strokes..., as the say.

 Neither politicians anticipated that in real life (IRL) a bad moon would come acallin' and their careers would come a cropper, in causal or merely incidental ways.

You my remember that New York State Rep. Christopher Lee suffered a fate similar to Weiner's and resigned his upstate congressional seat after it was revealed he e-mailed a shirtless photo to a

Rep. Christopher Lee
woman he met online.

Increasingly, it would seem as though the Internet, cyberspace and virtual reality are risky or questionable environments to play in for politicians who go there for some gratifications they can't satisfy in the real world, be it sex, power, political success or other drive or fantasy urges.

And, as for privacy in cyberspace? Fuggedaboutit. Especially politicians.  In that space no one really cares to hear you scream WTF when naive cyber behavior and recklessly intimate communiqués quickly become fodder for the world's entertainment, enemies' delectation, and an actor's personal, very public embarrassment, This has never been more true now that we've truly become a world of voyeurs and exhibitionists, actors and audiences. In effect, for libidinous and escapist politicians, life exposed on the Internet has become one big punchline. 

To this mélange of media missteps with a New York State of mind, we should add the implosion of Rupert Murdoch's mega-media conglomerate, News Corp (headquartered in the Big Apple) because of hackergate.   Folks from a Fleet Street tabloid, News Corp's News of the World, allegedly hacked the phone messages of more than 4,000 people in England including hacking into and deleting messages from the voicemail of a 13-year-old girl who went missing and was later found murdered.  This was remorselessly  done in order to develop a sensational headline news story.

Debris from News Corp's implosion may soon to be washing onto American shores because News of the World's hacker victims allegedly also included 9/11 victims' relatives. 

And, finally, now that the Pentagon has declared the Internet a "war domain"--aka war zone, all bets of net safety and privacy may be off, which must give us all pause.  Will we be cyber-victims of scammers, journalists, political adversaries, or the CIA?  To think, once we had to worry only about malware, viruses and other virtual bacteria.

Of course, all this is just the tip of an expanding iceberg, a media smorgasbord of unlimited possibilities that can't or won't stay under wraps for long, given the transparency and porousness of the internet and its motley ports of call. Who knows, we may all end up visiting or living in some virtual reality of one form or another, for some part of our complex, messy, 21st century lives. This could be our culture's collective Woody Allen movie, a Sleeper or Purple Rose of Cairo or Midnight in Paris; ah, Paris, where political or sexual scandals seem to go down the public throat more like a Brie than a very, very ripe French Munster.

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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