Ten years ago, he was known as the “Star Wars Kid” and the subject of unwanted media attention. Now the world knows him better as Ghyslain Raza.
Since granting his first interview in a decade, Raza has emerged something of a hero as his story inspires debate about online bullying and the impunity of the message board.
Raza’s story, which appears in the current print edition of Maclean’s and L’actualité, has spread to the U.S., U.K., France and Australia. It has been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, sites that didn’t exist when he was thrust into the spotlight as the butt of a viral video joke. Now he’s drawing praise instead of laughter.
“Thought the video was hilarious initially,” wrote one reader of the website of the British newspaper the Daily Mail. “Now seems heartbreaking. Bullying like this is worse now than it ever was due to Internet social media reaching further and remaining there indefinitely. It will always be there available if searched for. There is almost no escaping it. Glad he is able to move on.”
“Good on you mate that you’re moving on and beating the trolls and overcoming depression,” another Daily Mail reader commented.
The story was published on this website last Thursday and quickly became the most-read story of the year. Ranza’s comments about the “dark period” he plunged into in 2003 have since been highlighted by mainstream newspapers and tech blogs alike, including Gawker, Fox News, Reddit, Yahoo news, the French paper Le Figaro, Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet, Italy’s Corriere della Sera, the Australian News Limited Network and Mashable.
The story’s writer Jonathan Trudel called the mainstream reaction to the article “striking.”
“Wow… Sincere respect for this guy,” wrote a Mashable reader. “I wish I could shake his hand.”
Another added: “Shame on those who prey on others in this way.”
On Twitter, reaction was similar.
When we forget that these are people that we are joking about so casually and callously, this is what happens…. fb.me/2epiOInKt
— Big Daddy Voodoo (@bigdaddylilcity) May 13, 2013
Ghyslain Raza, aka “Star Wars Kid”, ten years on: “I felt worthless… but you’ll survive. You’re not alone.” mashable.com/2013/05/10/sta…
— Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) May 11, 2013
— Nathan Sloyer (@Sloy_Boy) May 10, 2013
“Thank you, Mr. Raza, for being strong and telling your story,” wrote a Maclean’s commenter. “You endured something awful and undeserved, and now by your example you are giving others the strength and courage to endure bullying.”
But though many condemned the bullying, others argued a funny viral video isn’t itself a bad thing.
“There is nothing wrong at all for laughing at the video and finding it funny,” Shane Weeks wrote on the Maclean’s story. “I bet even his parents found it funny when they first watched it before the viral incident (if they did). What I cannot tolerate is when people feel the need to humiliate and jeer at him.”
“Laughing at the video is not a crime,” Joan Michelle Miller wrote. “If a young boy can’t handle being laughed at there are a lot of other things in life that he won’t be able to handle either. Everyone gets humiliated, every one gets made fun of, every one needs to learn to laugh at themselves. The horrible thing in this case is that people crossed a line and went as far as to tell this kid to kill himself.”
American journalist Doug Bernard argued that Raza’s original ordeal might not repeat in today’s Internet culture. “Internet infamy just doesn’t have the same taint as it once did,” he wrote on his Voice of America blog Digital Frontiers.
Some Reddit writers blamed online anonymity for Ranza’s torment, while others argued for the benefits of web anonymity.
“People have a huge moral disconnect with the stuff they do online. If this guy said these things to them face to face they would probably take it to heart, but seeing it online gives them an easy way out of having to take moral responsibility, ” Kujaku Chan wrote.
“I personally like being anonymous but I also like to be cordial and respectful to others on the web,” countered a commentator identified as Countsheep.
Open and honest conversation would not exist at Reddit without anonymity, another poster argued.
“Anonymity is amazing, it forces people to listen to what you say instead of dismissing you as a Jew, or a black, or a gay, or all those things that happen in the real world,” wrote a user named RMcD94.
Despite the story’s revelations of the abuse that Raza endured, many readers remembered the video fondly, as a bit of fun about a young kid pulling the kind of Jedi moves that most other young boys likely tried out in their bedrooms.
The outpouring of response online to the story “proves Ghyslain was right to speak up,” says Trudel. “It says a lot about what society has learned from the too many cases of cyberbullying.”
By 2006, the Star Wars Kid video had been viewed an estimated 900 million times. Raza’s new interview, and the debate it has created, will no doubt drive traffic to original video, which is now YouTube with 28 million hits. This time though, Raza’s not wearing the joke.