Sympathy with the devil: Why former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi should be found not guilty on all charges

When I recently Googled “Dharun Ravi supporters,” I was shocked that not a single hit appeared that indicated any type of support for the 20-year-old accused of “15 counts of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence and a witness.” While it is certainly tragic that Ravi’s roommate Tyler Clementi felt so humiliated that he took his own life by jumping from the George Washington Bridge, it is not fair to make a scapegoat of Ravi for using his webcam as a “bias intimidation” mechanism or “invasion of privacy” tool.

The media has utterly failed to take into account the order of events that led to Clementi’s death. Mainstream media organizations have treaded lightly over this delicate case because Clementi’s death inspired a wave of successful anti-harassment and gay-awareness campaigns that led to the creation of a widely supported piece of Congressional legislation called the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act of 2011.” Therefore, any defense of Ravi could be misconstrued as anti-gay or pro-harassment.

But we were all once 18-year-old college freshmen. I know that if an unknown older person, regardless of sexual orientation was spending time in my bedroom when I was not there, I too would have been skeptical about whether my belongings were safe. How would you feel if you knew that you couldn’t enter your own bedroom because someone you got a “bad vibe” from (Ravi’s words)was inside your room?

Anyone who remembers the 1999 movie American Pie would know that high school and college kids can use webcams for unsavory purposes: In the film, the hot Czech exchange student Nadia changes her clothing while a webcam records the entire act. (I will always be scarred by this scene, as I awkwardly watched American Pie for the first time with my parents…an experience I will never forget!) Today, nearly all computers have built-in cameras, so it should not be surprising that students use them for keeping tabs on one another.

There are also cultural factors at play that may have caused Ravi to lack maturity or compassion regarding his roommate’s sexuality. At age 18, many Americans are not exposed to homosexual culture or sexual diversity. This may have been compounded by the fact that Ravi was born in India and raised in a household that may not have exposed him to non-traditional lifestyles. But in his interrogation, Ravi came across as genuine, articulate, and not the homophobe that he has been portrayed as by the media. (I find it to be appalling Ravi had no lawyer present and that his interrogation video is publicly available.)

Furthermore, it appears that Ravi genuinely tried to apologize and make amends with his roommate after learning of his intent to take his own life. He wrote to Clementi, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”

Finding Ravi guilty, despite his reputation already being slaughtered by the media, would be reprehensible. One life has already been lost. There is no reason for a second young person, whose life is already in shambles, to be sentenced to prison or found guilty for a situation that may have represented some level of immaturity, but certainly not a crime.

Microsoft is quietly stepping into the citizen journalism business…

Citizen journalism has faced one major obstacle that has prevented it from going totally mainstream: Source verification. This is an issue that I have discuss frequently with my friend and former classmate Torsten Mueller, of MundusMedia in Germany, who is  hoping to find solutions to this problem. As a Poynter blog noted, breaking news often hits Twitter first and then spreads to the mainstream media.

But now, teams of researchers are creating methods to help verify sources:

Late last year, a team of researches at Duke University (alongside a researcher from Microsoft) announced the creation of YouProve. This is an Android based system that I fear may not gain traction simply because it may lead to privacy issues.

Poynter also points to the work of Rutgers researchers.

*Again there is a team member who is a Microsoftian. I have manually verified that she was formerly a Rutgers Post Doc. And if I didn’t fear New Jersey so much, I’d try to meet with this team on their home turf, but perhaps I can coerce them to join me in New York for a bit.*

I suspect that verification has been a problem for citizen journalism sites like London-based photojournalism agency Demotix (that took an undisclosed investment last year from Corbis, which is privately owned by one Bill Gates) and Citizenside (that took an investment from AFP in 2007).

However, questions of privacy still remain, as verification also means that one’s personal information could/should be compromised for the sake of authenticity. This could lead to problems for anyone who hopes to be an anonymous source, especially sources based in America or in countries with oppressive regimes.