On a sunny afternoon over Memorial Day Weekend, a wily three-year-old wiggled into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, falling down 12 feet into the animal's moat. As 450-pound Harambe took notice and began to drag the child by his limbs, zookeepers had to make a quick choice: do nothing, and risk the child's death, or shoot and kill the majestic western lowland, a species considered "critically endangered." A tragedy either way, but the latter choice was an obvious one--after all, a toddler's life was at stake.
For those of you who want to understand this all quickly, here are the important points:
- According to the experts, including the Cincinnati zoo director himself, this was simply a tragic accident. The type of tragic accident that inevitably happens every now and then in certain environments, as it has in Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Brooklyn, Cleveland and other zoos.
- Rather than collectively breathe a sigh of relief with the family that things didn't end up much worse, we doubled down our our new favorite pastime: cyberbullying. Despite not being there or knowing anything about the parents, the internet has concluded that they are terrible parents who deserve to end up in jail, or even dead. This is beyond unfair.
- This type of cyberbullying will have a profound, tangible, long-term impacts on this family for the rest of their lives. It's not only emotionally overbearing but will have a direct impact on their livelihood. Imagine being this mother--who coincidentally works at a daycare--who now has to walk into every job interview for the rest of her life knowing that her online presence is dominated by strangers calling her the worst mother in the world.
- For everything the internet has given us, we don't seem to appreciate the seriousness of cyberbullying. It's easy to hide behind a screen and judge others (once again, against the opinion of the experts and without even being there) while ignoring the impact we have on those we target. When the dust clears, we need to remember that when it comes to cyberbullying, the results last forever.
This incident is just the latest to showcase how our culture has become prone to cyberbullying and online shaming.
People could have reacted one of two ways to the news: to sympathize with the sad loss of Harambe and the frightened parents, or they could cast stones. Unsurprisingly, many chose the latter.
The mob of Internet gorilla-defenders were not present that day. They don't know the family personally, and they certainly aren't experts on gorillas, zoo keeping, or childcare. In fact they ignored expert opinions and lashed out just the same. For them, it's easier to blame mom and dad than admit this kind of thing can happen.
The internet makes this casting stones business easy, even enjoyable. Take a look on any newsfeed and you'll see that outrage has become a game of sorts. What people fail to realize is that in an age of digital permanency, today's shame is stickier than molasses and far more toxic.
This type of outrage translates into three things: cyberbullying, public shaming, and damaged online reputations.
Following the incident, strangers targeted the mother on Facebook and sent her angry messages including death threats. This is not only incredibly unfair, but a form of cyberbullying. When their names were smeared publicly on online forums, Twitter, and social media, the cyberbullying evolved into public shaming. And when it escalated to dozens of news stories, their Google results were tarnished, possibly forever, damaging both their professional and personal prospects.
Imagine being the mother, who incidentally works for as a daycare administrator, going to job interviews for the rest of her life knowing that search results have branded her the worst mom in the world. On top of being emotionally taxing, it has the potential to seriously disrupt her livelihood in a long-term way. The same goes for the father, and as he gets older, the son.
Several women with the same name as the mother even changed their Facebook profile images to avoid being targeted. These women, who have zero connection to the incident, will also be associated with the incident via Google indefinitely.
The problem is we are quick to judge without any context, and even quicker to blow the matter out of proportion.
These are just some of the ways that the internet serves to amplify the age-old concept of parent-shaming it in an ugly way. It's no wonder everyone feels they have the right to an opinion on the topic--most people have either been parented and many are parents themselves. Not to mention the ramifications of "bad parenting" are extreme: our future literally depends on the good parenting of smart kids.
Most moms and dads know how easy and common it is to briefly lose sight of a child while attending to another. Once upon a time, these were private matters resulting in a search and at best a sigh of relief, at worst, the loss of a child. Online shaming exposes these terrifying personal moments to the judgement of the internet, which is known more for its mob mentality than its empathy.
Harambe was an amazing creature who deserved better, and it is okay to mourn the accident that led to his demise. But when we engage in cyberbullying and shaming, we're dragging the very real lives of very real strangers through the dirt, and being encouraged for it.
The parents' critics may complain that Harambe wasn't adequately protected, but they do so comfortably behind the protective glass of their computer screens. The gorrilla didn't know better--his size alone put the child at risk. People should know better. They should realize that the size of a mob is risky too.
For everything the internet has given us, it seems we still don't appreciate the seriousness of cyberbullying. It's easy to judge others while ignoring the impact on those we target. But when the dust clears after these vigilantes have had their fun, we all need to remember that when it comes to cyberbullying, the results last far longer than the latest trending newsbite.