The digital lynch mob. That term fits an emerging movement in Canada that uses the Internet as a means to shame those they deem worthy of condemnation.
And as with all mobs, there is a risk the activities its often anonymous members pursue pose a risk to the public wellbeing and security of us all.
The digital mob has emerged in grand fashion in the tragic case of Amanda Todd, a Coquitlam teen who killed herself following years of torment at the hands of a different kind of social miscreant. This mob seems intent on punishing whomever might be responsible for the dead teen’s torment. Lower Mainland news agencies reported Monday that the online group Anonymous publicly identified a man they believe is responsible for the terrible acts of bullying and harassment that ultimately led to Amanda’s decision to take her own life.
The reaction to the news was swift and predictably, the alleged bully was quickly targeted with threats. It is classic old-school vigilantism played out with the latest technology. It bears all the same risks, however, as its older variant.
The biggest danger is, of course, that the man identified as the perpetrator isn’t the right fellow. If he is not, then, he will have been done a grave wrong. Even if it is the right man, public exposure in this way could jeopardize society’s ability to bring him before the courts.
The notion of grassroots-fuelled public accountability is well-entrenched in other countries, notably China, where the term for this kind of crowdsourcing is coined “human flesh searching.” In China legions of “netizens” wait for a call to action from someone in their online community who wants out information about individuals, often public officials, that is not publicly available through traditional channels.
In one widely reported instance, human searchers put their collective digital capabilities together in mass effort to learn the identity of a woman caught on video killing a kitten with the heel of her shoe. Public outrage over the lack of official action prompted a wide-scale human-powered search, which eventually led to the woman. She lost her high-paying job as a result of the reams of publicity.
Not all instances have ended with a result that feels as satisfactory. In another notable Chinese example, a woman was subjected to merciless public shaming also leading to the loss of her job after being filmed refusing to give her bus seat to a senior. The punishment in the latter instance exceeds the offence.
The fact is — as has always been the case — vigilantism lacks the inherent safeguards to protect people from being made victims of erroneous accusation or from being punished too harshly.
We should be troubled by the haphazard naming of Amanda’s alleged bully via the Internet, despite the fact we so badly want the man brought to justice. Justice fuelled by outrage and hot action often turns out to be not so just after all.
We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by editor Robert Koopmans, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, news editor Mike Cornell or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.