Reading the news over lunch the last few days has been very upsetting. I’ve read articles about trophy game in Africa, potential underage sex, anti-abortion activists, and much more. What has been upsetting me most, however, is not the ostensible subjects of the articles — the killing of animals, the sex, and such. What is upsetting me — and what is prompting me to climb up on my soapbox and write this article over lunch — is the way that the Internet is turning people into cyberbullies, cybervigilantes, and cybermobs.
Let’s take the case of the dentist, Walter Palmer, who admits to shooting a lion with a bow and arrow. Long before he has had his day in a court of law, where it would be determined if he actually violated the law, his personal information was placed on the Internet. He has received death threats; his practice has been harassed and shut down. This has impacted not only Palmer, but his employees, his family, and his patients — none of whom are guilty of any crime. It has gone beyond Palmer. Even different dentists who happen to share the same last name are being harassed and threatened. Other game hunters — who hunted legally — are being harassed.
We’ve seen this happen in numerous other areas. Consider Jared of Subway fame. Claims have been made, and even before they are investigated, there is harassment. This harassment has extended to Subway franchises, who have done nothing other than try to run a business. It is even true in the case of Bill Cosby. I’m not trying to say that Cosby is innocent. But displays of African Art collected by Cosby are being boycotted — this doesn’t benefit Cosby at all, and financially hurts the art institution that was viewing the items as art.
Growing up, we all read books like The Ox-Bow Incident, where we learned about the dangers of vigilante or mob justice. We work to teach our children that cyberbullying is wrong. Yet on the Internet, we participate in it. There are people who troll comment forums, attacking anyone who expresses an opinion they disagree with. There are people who dox other people, disclosing home addresses and phone numbers to permit personal harassment and threats and expansion to family members. There are people that organizes attacks on businesses they do not like. There are people that go undercover and illegally film events, to disclose identities that put people at risk. These people are all, essentially, taking the law into their own hands.
I’m not trying to argue that Cosby’s actions, or Palmer’s actions or whomever’s actions are right. I’m saying that the Internet is not the place to try them. They need to be judged in a court of law, against the laws that are on the books, not someone’s personal moral code. If you don’t like the law, get the lawmakers to change the law. But we are a civilized society, and we do not take the law into our own hands. That means no trials in the court of public opinion, no sharing of rumors and heresay on the Internet, no doxing, no online harassment, no trolling, no cyberbullying. We — as a society — are better than that.
I shall now climb off my soapbox. That feels better.
P.S. If you are kid / teen facing a cyberbully, here’s some good advice on what to do.