Tweetivism: social justice or internet lynch mob?

The internet has proved incredibly effective at pointing out social injustice

The internet is incredibly effective at pointing out social injustice

It has been undeniable that 2009 was the year that Twitter put itself on the map.  Not just as the home of the early adopter, or as a tool for celebrity brand control, but as a method of social activism and justice.  We’ve seen it many times over the last twelve months.  Earlier in the year, we saw it used to great effect by protesters in Iran and Venezuela, highlighting how new communications technology can be used to fight against oppressive governments.

This week saw the rise of a different kind of internet ‘justice’ – the kind that is directed at a smaller target, and in the case of Jan Moir (Daily Mail) and Ian Morbin (TFL) the full brunt of Twitter outrage was brought against them.  We also saw the power of Twitter to ensure that companies such as Trafigura are held publicly accountable for their actions.

There is no doubt now that when the internet sees an act that is deemed to be a social injustice, it has an unrivaled ability to bring people together.  The result of this is often the rapid collection of information, and there are many dozens of high profile cases where those targeted had their addresses, phone numbers, workplaces and any other piece of personal information that could be dug up put out for anybody who wanted to see it.

It doesn’t take much to realise what happens next.  If there is one thing that we should be wary of when it comes to these viral forms of social justice, it is that they are completely uncontrollable and in many cases become little more than hysterical lynch mobs baying for blood.

Now, Jan Moir wrote a misguided article that contained poor journalistic integrity, and arguably more than a small amount of homophobic sentiment in a publication that is well known for such.  Ian Morbin should certainly be reconsidered for employment given his tirade against an elderly gentlemen, which in an atmosphere of high unemployment was not only incredibly unprofessional but also highly ungrateful for the fact that he has a job at all.  So I’m not saying that these individuals did not deserve much of the criticism that they got, and in the case of Ian Morbin my personal Twitter and Facebook  accounts certainly chimed in on the issue as well.

But then I heard and read a few things that made me start to question whether these campaigns were mutating into something more sinister.  First there were some conversations about how Jan Moir should never have been allowed to publish such an article at all.  Excuse me?

Then came another comment where somebody had proudly complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), before then admitting that they hadn’t actually read the article itself.  Sorry?

Consider now the call for flash mobs to descend upon Ian Morbin whilst he is working on a train platform, to all point and yell abuse.  Say that again?

Everybody loves a bit of internet justice, and to be honest I myself really do like to see the power of collaboration to bring down those who deserve it.  But bring them down in a manner that is civilised, well informed, and most of all isn’t hypocritical – and if there is something that the internet does just as well as communication, it’s hypocrisy.

An internet campaign has led to over a year of protests against Scientology

An internet campaign has led to over a year of protests against Scientology

Such forms of internet justice have been around for quite some time now (see this article for eight of the most well-known), well before Twitter and the recent support of such activity from the mainstream media.

If you delve into the underbelly of the internet, you’ll find that such forms of lynching have also taken on a more sinister tone.  A quick look at Encyclopedia Dramatica (no, I’m not linking to it – and no, it’s NOT safe for work!) will soon find you stories where this kind of collective harassment has been used for less than savoury purposes.

To be fair, the communities behind Encyclopedia Dramatica are also responsible for bringing internet predators into the light of day and into the hands of the authorities – as well as putting up an incredibly effective fight against the Church of Scientology.

However, if one thing can be seen from the site it is that this form of ‘justice’ is often taken way beyond any notion of fair or measured punishment.  Perhaps more importantly, it is quite often the case that the people being targeted soon see their family and friends brought into the mix – with just as much abuse and vigilante retribution being heaped upon them even though they are completely innocent.

What worries me is that we are about to see this type of behaviour go mainstream.  In the majority of cases this is a good thing, as it means that corporations such as Trafigura are not allowed to hide behind red tape.  It means that those who prey on people weaker then them can be sent a sharp message that such behaviour is just not acceptable.  It means that the collective can respond publicly – whether positively or negatively – to journalists such as Jan Moir or others who choose to use their social influence to spread their own ideology (whatever it may be).

But those are just the majority of cases.  There will be other cases that backfire, and horrifyingly so.  You can be assured that through such public campaigns in the future there will be suicides (indeed, there have already been).  There will be ruined lives and destroyed businesses.  There will even be murders committed by outraged, unstable, people who take a warped sense of justice too far.  Outraged mobs have caused all of these things throughout human history, so how could we ever presume that things are different now?

Having said this, there isn’t much that can be done to put the genii back in the bottle.  But as individuals we can consider our reactions upon hearing about such campaigns, and we must take responsibility for our own actions when participating in such forms of collective justice.

Definitely join in when you feel outraged or concerned, where you have something to say or wish to add your support.  But consider carefully if you find yourself in a situation to post somebody’s address or phone number – or to publicly name their family members and friends.  Consider against making any threats of violence, even if you do not necessarily mean them and are just venting behind the anonymity of the internet.

Before you comment on such controversy, educate yourself about its content.  Don’t complain to an official organisation without reading the article!  Don’t perpetuate rumours without seeing the evidence. Take pride in the fact that you are acting from a basis of knowledge instead of ignorance, of personal ideology rather than just mob mentality.

Don’t become one of the hysterical mob.  Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that the human race likes to find people to persecute.  Make sure that you aren’t another hypocrite throwing stones, but that your comments are considered; your thoughts educated; and your actions always remain ethical.

Internet justice will certainly become a force to be reckoned with, and indeed it already has.  So we have to make sure that in whatever small way possible we steer it towards the greater good, rather than allowing abuse and chaos to reign free.

3 Responses to Tweetivism: social justice or internet lynch mob?

  1. […] Many of Google’s tools are already being used by police and citizens alike to solve crimes–most notably Earth, Street View, and Maps–and they’re certainly a staple of online news sources. However, the WaPo stopped short of allowing its readers to add their own input to the maps and urged anyone with additional information to contact the relevant police forces, wary, perhaps, of how the Internet can be policed by vigilantes–right or wrong. […]

  2. Nalliah Thayabharan says:

    In a society where a reference check begins with an online search, the internet justice has given many people a life sentence since the viral forms of social justice are completely uncontrollable. Internet justice, unlike the government justice system, is swift and severe—and not necessarily right or fair. 
    There is a reason, however slow and unwieldy, that the administration of justice has been delegated to the government. 
    Welcome to the new digitally connected world. 

  3. […] Tweetivism: Social Justice or Internet Lynch Mob? (2009) […]

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