TECH

Why We Should All Fear The Righteous Online Mob

12/27/2013 01:29 pm 13:29:10 | Updated Jan 23, 2014
Franck Prevel via Getty Images

Justine Sacco ought to be tortured, shot and raped, preferably by someone with HIV, for what she said on Twitter -- at least according to a disturbing number of social media users.

Such suggestions were depressingly common in the week after Sacco, a former IAC public relations executive, sent a now-notorious tweet just before boarding a plane to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The ignorant and distasteful post cost Sacco her job and has made her a target for the Internet’s unstoppable “shame army.” People online have unleashed a barrage of graphic and abusive threats against Sacco, her family and even strangers who’ve expressed sympathy for her.

Sacco, whose Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts have since disappeared, seems to have retreated from the pitchfork-wielding mass keen to “rape u n leave aids drippin down ya face,” as one person wrote on Twitter.

Though most of us will never be targeted in this way, we all have reason to fear this breed of mob vigilantism, which has struck with increasing force, speed and regularity. The violent response to Sacco, and many others before her, risks instilling a culture of self-censorship that stifles free expression and mutes unconventional opinions online. With the all-seeing shame army standing at the ready to denounce and attack anyone at any time, debating differing ideas could give way to exchanging watered-down platitudes that garner mob approval and everyone can “like.”

Condemning the bile aimed at Sacco isn’t the same as endorsing her remarks, which were both ignorant and astonishingly clueless for somebody whose job was generating positive press. But there is no justification for the nature of the violent, sexist blowback. (In fact, Sacco's harassers seem emboldened by the assumption that they’re above criticism so long as they’re condemning a person others agree is bad.)

The ruthless public shaming people like Sacco face online may dissuade other people from any speech that diverges, even slightly, from the mob’s black-and-white moral code. Dr. Claire Hardaker, a lecturer at Lancaster University researching aggression online, points out that even a "well-meaning" mob judges fault in a simplistic, inconsistent and highly emotional fashion. Gut reactions win, then give way to extreme responses.

Though the menaces may claim they're just exercising their right to free speech, they're actually muting the voices of anyone who dares cross the mob's "party line." For the targets of violent Internet vigilantism, the physical and digital can meld in ways that jeopardize peoples' livelihoods, or even their safety.

When Adria Richards, then an employee at an email marketing company, called out two men at a tech conference for what she considered a sexist joke, others lashed out with death threats and exposed her private information. A 22-year-old who dressed as a Boston marathon victim for Halloween was fired, received menacing phone calls, had her personal details leaked and had nude pictures of herself circulated online. A stranger told her best friend she and her child would be killed.

The residents of Steubenville, Ohio, a town that became the target of Internet “hacktivists” following rape charges against two teenage boys, described their community as “destroyed” by online vigilantes pushing for what they considered justice. (The case, later accounts suggested, was far more complicated than bloggers online seemed to realize.) Masked strangers spooked Steubenville children by hiding in their lawn; hackers broke into the Steubenville police chief's email, then posted a photo of him in a G-string; and an anonymous threat temporarily shut down Steubenville schools.

The vigilantes who have been whipped into a frenzy over racist tweets -- or accusations of sexism -- could, before long, unleash the same abuse on anyone who expresses an opinion with which the mob disagrees. Today, a tasteless joke could make you a target. Tomorrow, it may be an unpopular, but valid, idea -- like taxing soft drinks, or instituting quotas for female board members.

Online vigilantism "is likely to lead to a greater culture of censorship -- in particular, the stifling of alternative voices and opinions," Hardaker wrote in an email. “[W]e find people defending this strategy of intimidating, threatening, and ultimately silencing others as ‘free speech,’ seemingly oblivious to the irony that in doing so, they are actively engaged in censorship."

Already the denouncers succeed almost immediately in silencing their targets. Closing her social media accounts makes Sacco the rule, not the exception. But the mass vengeance not only muzzles those who’ve done something wrong, it scares others into a kind of submissive silence. Sacco’s experience warns everyone else that there is no tolerance for deviance from the amorphous, but rigidly defended, ethics of the mob. You can say what you please, so long as it pleases the crowd.

“Like more traditional offline deterrents ... online shaming allows certain individuals or groups to model what is and what is not acceptable within a specific (sub)cultural context,” Dr. Whitney Phillips, a faculty associate in Humboldt State University's sociology department researching Internet culture, wrote in The Awl last December. “But not just model -- the second (and simultaneous) half of that equation is punishing, or threatening to punish, anyone who deviates from whatever established norm.”

The snap judgment of the self-appointed shame army extends offline, where the perceptions of friends, employers and even jurors are tainted by the condemnation of the crowd. The online vigilantism “effectively undermines actual judicial processes by making it nearly impossible for cases that go to court to get a fair hearing,” warned Hardaker. No matter how rational or irrational, the tenor of mob outrage can overwhelm measured responses.

Companies are easily swayed by the digital pitchforks. Sacco, for example, had posted a slew of offensive tweets before her comment about Africa last week, including one reference to her"sex dream about an autistic kid." Although arguably less egregious than the message that got her fired, her employer didn’t seem to balk at her off-color comments until her post became news. People can become a liability for companies, or a criminal in the eyes of jurors, after a few hours of rumors and outrage online. Innocent until proven guilty has become innocent until proven viral.

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