Saturday, May 4, 2013

Are you part of an Internet lynch mob?

We know lynch mobs are a bad thing. As a nation that believes in giving criminals a fair trial, a team of vigilantes who murder a suspect upsets and overturns the civil rights of the accused. Even when that person is guilty, lynch mobs violate important aspects of civilization and have no place in our society.

But is it fair to compare them to Internet lynch mobs, where people post scathing criticisms and personal information about a supposed criminal? I maintain that it is. While they are not using actual violence against their target, they are doing everything they can to demolish that persons life.

In some cases, they reveal home addresses in order to enable others to commit actual violence on the target.

I imagine most people who join these crusades think they are on the side of justice. After all, because of activists in the Steubenville case who spread the names of both those accused of a sexual assault and those accused of witnessing it but not reporting it, it's reasonable to believe that public pressure lead to the case going to trial and the suspects were found guilty.

But that's not the only case of Internet vigilantism, and if they had been found innocent their reputations would still be ruined.

What about all of the pictures of people in the crowd holding bags at the Boston Marathon Bombing that self-appointed Internet detectives passed around? It wasn't just the New York Post that spread photos of potential victims and labeled them suspects; that was vigilantism and it hurt innocent people.

Lynch mobs often get their facts wrong, as could be seen by the major revisions and reversals in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Then there's the online activism around the sad story of Rehtaeh Parsons that managed to "name and shame" an innocent person and advanced a narrative that may have been fictional. From the Edmonton Journal:

What they had was a complainant whose evidence was all over the map, independent evidence that supported the notion that any sex was consensual, and no evidence that Rehtaeh was so drunk that she couldn't consent: The case was a mess. 
But the names of four boys are online anyway - one a boy who wasn't even at the party and who went public to defend himself last week.

Online activism has a potential to do a lot of good, and you probably have the noblest of intentions when get involved with a public shaming. However, when you declare a person is guilty based on limited information or third-hand knowledge and then act upon it in a life-destroying manner you are playing on primitive emotions wrapped in ones and zeros.

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