Tech Tuesday: Considering the (Frightening) Power of the Virtual Lynch Mob

hackerIn the news recently, Anonymous, an international network of cyber hackers and protesters, released the identities of 1000 KKK members, insinuating certain members of the reviled hate group were now in positions of influence and power in branches of the United States government. We saw leaks of the list that Anonymous rejected immediately, but the damage had been done. Politicians were now compelled to come out to defend their reputations and deny their involvement.

George Orwell’s science fiction classic 1984 introduced the notion of a “thoughtcrime” when thinking anything against the Party was deemed criminal. This would mean arrest and rehabilitation (read that as torture) under the Thought Police. 1984 is considered a definitive cautionary tale, but what makes Orwell’s masterpiece particularly terrifying is how close 2015 mimics Orwell’s dystopian fiction. You see it in hacktivist groups like Anonymous, commentary shows like The Hannity Show, and online across social networks, the Thought Police has become a reality. If you are outside of their thinking, you become Public Enemy #1 and must be destroyed.

Perhaps the most chilling consideration of these self-proclaimed keepers of truth and justice (often times deemed as “Social Media Justice Warriors”) is the blanket credence granted to them.  How do we know if Anonymous’ KKK list is accurate or even correct? The leaks last week at least should give you pause to think about the reliability of the information and question why we are even trusting Anonymous in the first place. No one knows who Anonymous is. Yet, they are given credibility by trusted sources such as Wired Magazine, BBC, ComputerWorld and others.

Another example of virtual activism is the death of Cecil the Lion, killed by an American big-game hunter in Zimbabwe. Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, was forced into hiding after receiving death threats. The number of threatening online posts about the incident and the fallout on review-driven platforms like Yelp! were incredible. Dr. Palmer thought the hunt believed the hunt to be legal, and relied on local guides. Virtual activists sprang into action, unearthed shady details from the doctor’s past, and destroyed his reputation. True, justice should be served, but is this right? Does the dentist have rights, as well?

Then there is the curious case of Justine Sacco and her tweet “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” One ill-thought update of less than 140 characters destroyed her reputation, lost her job, and turned her into a 21st century recluse. Her tweet meant to amuse her 170 followers, but went viral (as her account was open to the public), and within 24-hours, she was the face of “White Privilege” on the Internet. People reveled in her demise. Yes, the tweet was ill thought out but does the punishment fit the crime? Does Justine Sacco not have rights, too?

Who watches these watchmen? Who holds them accountable?

This type of virtual activism is less about justice and more about destroying reputations, the endgame to destroy anyone who does not have the same views as them. This has become the sad state of affairs in our country today, the effect of virtual activism resulting in problems for the person, the family, and even the community. Perhaps you are stunned in this defense I’m posing, but to be clear—I do not support what the KKK believes, have no desire to go on a trophy hunt, nor intend to update my social networks with a cavalier attitude. I do support freedom, individual rights, and in justice via due process.  

Angry villagers with pitchforksWe have to stop this behavior. The politically correct culture is getting out of hand. We must go back to respecting each other and our diverse viewpoints and beliefs. We must ask questions, consider the sources, and scrutinize credibility. This country was built on the premise that we value diverse opinions and viewpoints. Each person is a gift and we need to respect their opinions even if we do not agree with them. Instead of trying to destroy reputations maybe we need to start understanding why people believe and think the way they do, and understand that lapses in judgment happen and mistakes will happen. Each person comes with a set of life experiences that has shaped their beliefs, opinions, and worldview. Just because they are different from you does not mean you need to attack them virtually and verbally. A single tweet should not destroy a life.

The Internet and social media was built to be an exchange of ideas and data,  not a home for a virtual lynch mob. We need to stand up and resist this type of behavior, a behavior that ends only in a downward spiral which destroys people’s lives. Provided laws are respected and civil rights upheld, we all have the freedom to our own beliefs and views, both in the real world and the one online. When we start trying to mold everyone into the same views and beliefs we end up with more problems. We have fought wars over this.

Perhaps the time has come to consider the value of data, and respect the power it holds over us all.



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