Judge, Jury and Social Media Executioner

It seems more and more often that we see people shamed on social media. They do something greedy, stupid, or bigoted, or a combination of all three, and it comes to the attention of someone who’s internet famous. Tweets go out, virtual mobs assemble, and pretty soon there are real world consequences. Firings, defacement of property, physical violence and death threats are not uncommon.

Of course there are also the apologists who step in to play devil’s advocate, defend the offender, or just straight up troll the mob and its leaders. Sometimes the retaliation is more violence directed back towards the shamers and the offender’s original victim.

And then there are people who step in to point out that mob justice doesn’t seem right, no matter how egregious the original offense. But by this time the issue is too polarized for a nuanced point of view and these people are lumped in with the apologists. Complicating matters is that they are almost indistinguishable from some of the more sophisticated apologist trolls.

Absent the heat of the moment, I think most reasonable people would acknowledge that this isn’t a good way to bring justice to any situation. It looks way too much like a vigilante lynch mob. And even if the offender is guilty in most of the cases, we all know that it’s only a matter of time before some innocent is scarred for life, their personal and professional reputations destroyed in a way that no number of retractions can repair.

How many true offenders must be brought to justice in order to justify the cost of one false positive?

This is an old problem — addressed in the offline world by a complex architecture of civil society and legal systems — but set in a new borderless, online world that has little regulation. My intuition recoils at the idea of government regulating behavior on the social web, but given human nature and the capacity for groups to do damage to individuals, its hard to imagine a future where this isn’t happening.

In the meantime we should take a more critical look at online, crowdsourced justice. In particular, the influential, apparent do-gooders who are in many cases stirring the mobs to action. Most of them probably have good intentions, but some seem to enjoy the role too much. They ride the powerful wave of online emotion to even greater influence. Rinse. Repeat.

We should exercise more restraint before seeking justice through social media. Is there a way of solving the problem by speaking to the offender directly? Is it possible that our tweet could lead to a disproportionate response? Is the individual in our sights just the unlucky drop over the full bucket, or are they truly responsible for the full extent to which we were wronged?

I’m sure that a lot of people who take their conflicts to Twitter or Facebook get no response at all. But some get a response far beyond their expectation or desire. In addition to the pain caused by the original offense, they may have to live with the guilt of a disproportionate response that ruined someone’s life.