Future

Top or Flop? German Peer Rating App Accused Of Online Mobbing For Kids

SchülerVZ, a youth portal, has introduced a new app for young school children to rate their peers. While the company says it’s safe and fun, some experts and parents say it encourages the worst kind of child social pressures that can have lasting conseque

An image of the controversial
An image of the controversial
Johannes Kuhn

MUNICH -- Wolfgang Lünenbürger-Reidenbach is teed-off. The Hamburg blogger announced he was canceling his sons' accounts with the German "SchülerVZ" site. "SchülerVZ, it's time for you to go," he writes angrily. "As your options to boost traffic dwindle, all you can apparently think of is something this low."

What the blogger is referring to is the network's new web app for German school kids. "VZ-Pausenhof" makes it possible for children as young as 10 to rate their school mates. Three portraits of kids appear with the query "Top or Flop?" Next to the images is a Facebook-style "Like" button and a Thumbs Down button.

A certain amount of nastiness among school kids is par for the course. "Mobbing" – when nastiness toward a particular student is carried about by an entire group – is not unheard of either. The problem with the "SchülerVZ" app, according to Lünenbürger-Reidenbach, is that it provides both nastiness and mobbing an "official platform" and thus could bring emotional bullying to a whole new level. "It is stepping over a line that never should have been crossed," he says.

Johnny Haeusler, who writes the popular Spreeblick blog out of Berlin, agrees. "This new "Pausenhof" app is introducing something that every social network should do its best to avoid: giving users the possibility to be negative about other members," he says.

"Anybody who has ever seen how severely psychological pressure can affect a child, and observed the frightening ruthlessness, malevolence and technical savvy that children and adolescents use against each other with the deliberate intent of bringing someone down ... can only wonder if ‘SchülerVZ" possesses any sense of responsibility at all," Haeusler adds.

All fun and games until someone gets hurt

The VZ network's marketing head, Tobias Scheiba, says accusations that the company created a vehicle that could encourage mobbing are off base. In fact, the app was conceived to make mobbing virtually impossible, he insists.

Scheiba says that the only kids who can be rated are other "VZ-Pausenhof" users. What's more, members have the possibility of activating an Ignore function to keep unpleasant classmates out of the loop. And there's a button so that cases of abuse can immediately be reported to "SchülerVZ" customer services.

The number of flops is not available either to the child concerned or other "SchülerVZ" members, and according to Scheiba can't be found out via any other means either. So why a Flop button at all? The inspiration came from games like "Hot Or Not" that are very popular with school kids and can be played on other social networks and smart phone apps, he says.

Scheiba does admit that "first impressions of our app could be misleading" and says that in future the company will advertise the app in a more precise way so as to avoid misunderstandings.

The new app has also brought accusations that "SchülerVZ" was trying every means, in view of its sinking popularity, to keep its members involved in the platform. The portal, which belongs to the Georg von Holtzbrinck publishing group, is suffering from the huge popularity of Facebook. In November 2010 "SchülerVZ" recorded 364 million visits. A year later, the number was down to 84 million.

The company tried to sell the portal this summer, but there were no serious takers. In September, changes were made to the platforms and a future focus on apps – of which "VZ-Pausenhof" is one – was announced.

Read the original story in German

Photo - SchülerVZ

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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