This morning I stumbled across a new article in New York Times Magazine discussing the widespread backlash that can result when someone does something that a significant segment of the Internet deems wildly inappropriate. You've seen the sort of thing: hundreds upon thousands of angry tweets, Facebook posts, mocking hashtags, and the like, shared repeatedly and often strewn with insult and invective. The article writer (a fellow named Jon Ronson, probably best known as the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats) has dubbed these "shame campaigns."
I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake...
Mr. Ronson was moved to seek out and interview some of the targets of these campaigns, such as Justine Sacco, the PR professional who was summarily fired after making some ill-advised tweets while en route to South Africa, including the now infamous
Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!Unsurprisingly, he found not entrenched bigots but normal human beings whose unwise attempts at humor had spiraled disastrously.
Interestingly, Mr. Ronson also found that the Internet would cheerfully unleash its shame campaigns without much regard for "sides." The blogger who promulgated Ms. Sacco's apparently racist tweet--and much later publicly apologized to her for doing so--found himself the victim of a shame campaign for a tweet sarcastically suggesting we should
Bring Back Bullying(okay, it happened to be in the context of a GamerGate discussion, but that's all! I'm not going to talk about GamerGate! I swear!). An even better example: Mr. Ronson interviewed a man who made a quiet off-color joke to the friend sitting next to him at a conference. The woman sitting in front of them overheard it, took his picture, and tweeted it with a comment about sexism in the industry. It took only ten minutes for the Internet to roll into action, and two days for him to be fired. But the Internet wasn't finished: the man posted online about losing his job, and the woman who tweeted the picture then found herself bombarded with harassment and death threats. Then her employer had its website attacked and was told the attacks would stop only if she were fired, so she was fired too.
As the more perceptive of you will have realized by now, we're on the Internet. Certain characteristics of the Internet foster these kinds of wholesale harsh reactions to offensive content, however slight or serious. One of the more obvious, of course, is anonymity. In addition to literal anonymity, the use of nicknames and pseudonyms (e.g. this very LiveJournal) is widespread and unquestioningly accepted as appropriate. Moreover, the ease of creating fake online identities and profiles means that even people who appear to use real names on the Internet are not necessarily who they say they are, and may therefore be functionally anonymous.
According to a 2013 study from the Carnegie Mellon Psychology Department on people using the Internet anonymously, the vast majority (93%) did so in the context of social interactions. And more than half (53%) admitted choosing to remain anonymous for the purpose of illegal, malicious, or otherwise socially undesirable activities. Anonymity allows--and in some instances perhaps even encourages--people to act without their normal social restraints. It often leads to racist, sexist, homophobic, threatening, or just plain rude comments that many posters would never say face-to-face in Real Life(tm). The technology that is the Internet dehumanizes the targets of such comments, at the same time that it massively increases the comments' range. Cyber-bullying is one obvious consequence; at the extreme, the Internet uniquely enables the antisocial behavior of those who take delight in causing others misery, as discussed in detail in the 2008 article in New York Times Magazine entitled "The Trolls Among Us." (Note how much care the trolls take to conceal and protect their true personal information.)
In addition to providing a cloak of anonymity, the Internet makes it astonishingly easy for anyone with any viewpoint, however bizarre, to find throngs of other people who share that viewpoint. Unfortunately, people are much more likely to engage in negative behavior when doing so as part of a group behaving the same way. In general, it seems that people believe (or at least behave as if) their actions have a lower potential for negative consequences to themselves when acting within a group rather than alone. Seeing others engage in the same behavior also decreases any guilt that might otherwise be associated with it. History is studded with innumerable examples of the horrors that can result when great swathes of the public fall into this sort of mob mentality: the Salem Witch Trials, the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the Red Scare in the 1950s. Technology only intensifies the hatred of the crowd, and shame campaigns are but the latest examples of this same old mindset.
So. On the one hand, the Internet as a medium enables (if not outright encourages) the easy dissemination of every form of information, which includes negative opinions, insults, and threats. On the other hand... well, there's this pesky thing here in the United States called the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech, y'know? Isn't every single thing everyone posts publicly a protected expression of this fundamental right? Exhorting a company to fire a racist "bitch" and laughing at her misfortune? Threatening to show up at an ex-girlfriend's house and kill her? Publicly posting someone's private address, social security number, and other personal details? Fabricating an online persona to torment a teenager so badly she is driven to commit suicide? Where can we draw the line?
Of course freedom of speech is not absolute. The First Amendment famously does not protect the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. It doesn't protect bomb threats. It also does not protect defamation or other knowingly false statements of fact. It does not protect violations of another's copyright. And here's another place where federal law has drawn the line: 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).
Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.Because the Internet crosses state lines and international borders, posting to the Internet constitutes transmitting a communication in "interstate or foreign commerce." Thus, threats of death or injury are in fact illegal. (If anyone has the resources to find the anonymous people who post them, which is another can of worms entirely.)
The next hot-button issue arises when those posting threats claim they weren't serious, and even belittle their targets for being too sensitive. After all, no illegal violence is actually intended or carried out, right? What's your problem? So one side points to the rights of the victims to be free from harassment, while the other waves the Constitution and complains about violations of the rights of the speakers. What to do?
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Elonis v. United States. Mr. Elonis made online threats against his estranged wife and others, including local police and an FBI agent. A jury convicted him under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), finding that a "reasonable person" would have regarded his statements as genuinely threatening. He has appealed, contending that he did not actually intend to threaten anyone, that he was just blowing off steam therapeutically, that he was actually an aspiring rap artist like Eminem, and that the law requires (or constitutionally must require) proof of actual subjective intent. The Court has not yet decided this case, but I for one will be watching with considerable interest.