Internet Justice

I read The Crucible in high school. I might even have read it the same year that I read Lord of the Flies. I remember the teacher leading us carefully through discussions of mob justice and leadership through popularity. We, earnest honors students that we were, all spoke solemnly about how terrible it was to have people convicted and punished based on the voice of the crowd. It was a different year when I read The Scarlet Letter and learned about the pillory, a place of public shaming for sinners. I remember thinking how glad I was to not live in a place where mob justice and public shaming were normal.

In history class I learned about civil rights and why people must speak out. I learned about oppressed people who refused to obey laws that they felt were wrong. By doing so, they required that the oppression become physical and public instead of social and quiet. This forced those in power to confront their own behavior. And by “those in power” I’m talking about all the people who didn’t have lesser status under “Separate But Equal” and Jim Crow laws.

These days I look at the news and see inequality. I see people getting lighter sentences than seems fair for the damage they caused. I see others ending up dead for small infractions or no infractions at all. I notice that there is a correlation between skin color and severity of punishment and a similar correlation tied to social class. Our justice system fails. Often. It is difficult to create a system that is truly equitable when all of the people in it are imperfect at best, and biased at worst. Yet there is something lovely in what the founders of my country attempted. Instead of judgement from on high, there is a small group of flawed people who try their hardest to be impartial as they examine evidence. And they are instructed “innocent until proven guilty.” That ideal is not always applied, but it is supposed to be there.

This is why I am sad, scared, and worried any time I see a hue and cry on the internet. I see faces and crimes published. I see people gathering in crowds to throw virtual stones because someone else cried “sinner!” I’ve read accounts where a person loses their income and has to physically relocate to escape harassment, all because of an ill-considered tweet. I saw when parents were tried in the court of public opinion because somehow their parenting decisions ended up on the news. I know that, historically, handling things quietly was how oppression lasted so long. But most of the time nothing is made better by a mob. There is a world of difference between calling out an elected official because of bad behavior, and a thousand people posting hateful messages on the Facebook wall of a private individual.

The thing that concerns me most about internet mobs (which can turn into physical mobs) is there is no pause. People are angry and they feel something must be done NOW. They know that the justice system is slow and sometimes inadequate, so they feel they must do something themselves. They, or rather we, I am not innocent of this. No one is who has ever been angry on the internet. We latch on to the first action we can think of which vents feelings and feels relevant. This is usually public shaming. So few people pause to think: “Is it my job to judge this individual case?” “What am I really angry at?” “What actions will really solve this injustice I am angry about?” Instead of anger applied to concerted effort for systemic change, the internet hoists up an example. A supposed perpetrator is displayed in public like the pillory, or heads on a pike, or the thief dying in the crow cage. The example sates the anger for a while, and most everyone goes back to what they were doing before. The system rolls on unchanged.

We need fewer mobs and more resolute anger. There are absolutely things that are deserving of anger. And sometimes an example is a useful lever for social change, but most often this is the case when the example is selected by due process or at least careful research and gathering of evidence. Resolute anger is smart and patient. It is loud and unruly when that is necessary in defense of the oppressd. But more often it acts firmly, quietly, carefully to change the very social structures that support injustice. It acts within the systems whenever possible, because the intent is to make the rules better, not to create lawlessness. And when the systems are completely hostile, civil disobedience comes before rioting. None of this bears much resemblance to clicking “share” to someone else’s angry post without looking into the issue yourself. If you’re going to be angry about something, be angry enough to do research. Be angry enough to donate to organizations that you feel are actually working to solve the problem. Be angry enough to start an organization if you can’t find one. Be angry enough to do more than write a sentence or a paragraph. And if you aren’t angry enough to put in this much effort, maybe you should turn your attention to things that matter to you more instead of just adding to the sound and fury which signifies nothing.