It’s small-town gossip 2.0: Tiny towns in the Ozarks, Appalachia, and elsewhere are increasingly turning to the Internet for local chatter—and when posts are anonymous, they can get nasty. On sites like Topix.com, cruel rumors get started virtually, and true or not, the fallout can be disastrous. Topix is a “cesspool of character assassination,” a Missouri diner owner tells the New York Times, and “in a small town,” adds neighbor Jennifer James, “rumors stay forever.”
Case in point: A post about James labeled her “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” The post killed friendships; James considered suicide and is now moving. Topix isn’t big in cities, but “we’re running the Gawker for every little town in America,” says a rep. The site tried to delete negative posts but gave up when traffic dropped. Because it’s an Internet forum, the site itself can’t be sued for libel, though the Times notes the company gets a subpoena a day demanding the computer addresses of individual users. Click through for more on the online rumor mill.