One mistake. One poorly-judged comment. One regrettable action. Nowadays, that’s all it takes to wake the internet’s vigilante response unit: always ready to consume its victim, but not before having had it slowly marinated in the sauce of sweet, sweet justice, and gently char-grilling any of its remaining dignity to nothing more than a blackened crisp. That’s correct: we live in a world where it’s no longer the church, the government, or our family’s job to correct any moral wrongdoing, but that of the internet: the greatest, most destructive invention in human history.
It’s easy to be hyperbolic about the role the internet plays in hammering each and every one of us into submission and ruining those who refuse though, isn’t it? And isn’t it great? We can smile gleefully with the knowledge that, unlike in the times of our ancestors, not a single person-who’s-made-a-careless-mistake will be able to live it down.
Everybody is at risk. Someone with a sex life and a smartphone can become a porn-star; a casual drinker becomes a drunk; one misclick or lapse of judgement is all it takes for your private life to fall into the hands of somebody, anybody, else. You are what you post. And a slightly racist joke or one-off cock-up should definitely result in unemployment, depression or permanent shame, right?
Unfortunately, this is the semi-sadistic attitude which seems to be fairly common among not just the youth, but the entire internet-using community. Mathematically: mild anger + mob mentality = the deserved dismantlement of another human being’s life. However, there is most definitely a dark evil side to this form of justice.
Take the topic of the reprehensibly racist teenagers whose contribution to the presidential election of 2012 was calling Obama a monkey. Disgusting? Yeah! In need of re-direction? Certainly. Well, when the feminist blog Jezebel took it upon itself to expose these teenagers, they not only published their names but alerted their headmasters too. What these teenagers did was wrong, but alongside the emotional scars of this incident, they carry digital scars too. 'What would an employer find if they Googled you?' For Ricky, Stehl and a dozen others the answer is: 'racist teens forced to answer for tweets' accompanied by photographs and, if you look hard enough, schools attended; hardly a guarantee of future success.
Examples of the same phenomenon can be found anywhere and everywhere on the internet. Walter Palmer: the man who killed Cecil the lion. Justine Sacco: the woman who posted that slightly distasteful AIDS joke. Izabel Laxamana: a 13-year-old girl whose suggestive photos resulted in her father filming her hair being cut off, something subsequently posted online by a 'friend’. On the one hand, none of the above committed the same 'wrongdoing' twice. On the other hand, Walter Palmer’s office’s exterior walls have been plastered with messages such as 'rot in hell' – many calling for the removal of his skin. Justine Sacco lost her job, pride and the respect of many. Izabel Laxamana is dead. She jumped off a bridge a few days after the video surfaced online. Whilst the two events cannot be definitively linked, did the public shame contribute to the death of a 13-year-old girl?
It’s not fair. It’s as if the collective energy of the entire 'connected' planet has been channelled into punishing these unfortunate individuals; even the despicable ones clearly don’t deserve the violence of the reaction against them. There’s something primordial about it. Out of the swamp emerges man: hungry for vengeance, iPhone chord twisted into a noose, Apps at the ready, fingers poised, scanning for social injustice or a crime onto which he can jump and devour. Internet shaming is the modern equivalent of a public whipping: the former became acceptable in the last decade; the latter was deemed barbaric over a hundred years ago. And you can hide physical scars.
The internet was initially liberating. We were given power over companies and people in authority. If enough fuss was made, we had the ability to have stuff removed, changed, apologised for. The underdogs had more control than ever; justice was thrust into the hands of anybody who wished to have control of it. But this liberation was also a form of enslavement; it was only a matter of time before the tables would turn. Peoples’ natural desire to lash out at others became outrage, then abuse, then destruction of those who, for a single moment, have shown poor judgement. Journalists, living examples of the freedom and righteousness the internet wishes to champion, have their careers destroyed for silly decisions and moments of stupidity. And your digital history doesn’t go away – your online shadow grows and grows until it overwhelms you, becoming more noticeable than the reality of the person it represents.
This form of so-called 'justice' is a phenomenon best consigned to the deep, dark corners of the web. One mistake. One poorly judged comment. One regrettable action. That’s all it takes to wake them so they can snatch away our dignity and drop us into a black hole of shame. It’s dangerous because it doesn’t go away. For hundreds of years we have acknowledged that the worst forms of punishment are those of a public nature: whipping, mob abuse, and the stocks. Of course, they fell out of common usage in the 19th century. We’re much too civilised for that. But what’s the difference? Aside from the obvious logistical difference, public whipping and internet shaming are basically the same thing – and yet only one is still practised today. Only one causes the loss of jobs, loss of friends and loss of reputation. This vigilante 'justice' is the difference between the worldwide web being a place of modernity, and one of Middle Ages brutality.
This article by Jonathan Tevendale, aged 15, of Mallaig High School, earned him the title Scottish Schools' Young Writer of the Year organised by SR's publisher, the Institute of Contemporary Scotland. Jonathan wins a cash prize of £500 and his school an award of £1,000.
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