The Swift Hand of Social Media Justice

It’s often been repeated that anything you post online can live forever. Never post anything on social media that could embarrass you at a job interview or at your next family reunion. But people often fail to recognize that it goes further than that – anyone can post anything about you on social media. Anyone can snap a photo with you in the background, and you can be caught in something you never intended to end up online. We truly live in the age where the world is watching.

This was definitely the case this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia – the site of a white nationalist, KKK, Nazi gathering that turned deadly when a car slammed into a crowd of civil rights protestors. The power of social media was harnessed to identify attendees at the rally and call them out for their racist and hateful views.

Photos with faces clearly visible were posted online. A Twitter user going by the handle @YesYoureRacist promised that if he was sent the names and profiles of alt-right rally-goers he would “make them famous.” And people delivered.

Identities of the men who were there quickly became public. Some of lost their jobs, and some of have been disowned by their families. And based on their extracurricular activities, there’s nothing wrong with that. When people demonstrate in public they can – and should – be called out if their views are hateful and repugnant.

But – what if social media gets it wrong?

In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombing, social media users incorrectly identified a university student as a suspect, based on an image of the finish line. He was innocent of any wrongdoing, but his family quickly started receiving death threats and racist messages.

What’s the lesson here? Maybe that social media can be used to stand up to bigotry and hate. These platforms can be used to call out discrimination and make people accountable for it. But it’s not without risks. And it’s certainly not foolproof. People power social media and people make mistakes. But when people do get it right, social media can be an undeniable force for good in the world.

Just remember: even if you don’t use Twitter or Facebook, someone you know does. Someone out there can identify you and in an instant the world can know your name.

There’s no such thing as anonymity anymore.

Twitter:

After #Charlottesville social media delivers justice to white supremacist attendees. Read more: http://bit.ly/2watEum

Facebook:

After the events in Charlottesville, social media users took to Facebook and Twitter to call out white supremacists by name. Are these platforms the new foundation for delivering social justice? Read more here: http://bit.ly/2watEum

COM0015-Blog post #4-Out of the Box

Vigilante justice – yes, for me that’s the most unexpected application of social media. Who knew that networks of people on Facebook and Twitter could help solve crimes? Social media has become an online form of “neighbourhood watch”. When something shocking goes on in the neighbourhood, audiences stay tuned into their social media sites to track it. There were many examples of internet vigilantism in 2013; the most memorable for me was the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers (http://globalnews.ca/news/1016396/social-media-2013-year-in-review-vigilante-justice/).
Within the last year, this vigilante justice mindset happened in my small hometown as well, not too far from Ottawa. Someone posted on Facebook that a young teenage girl had been abducted. From that post came a slew of people sharing it to warn others to keep their children safe inside and to keep an eye out for the missing girl. It was amazing and wonderful to see all of these people coming together to try to help find her and keep others safe.
Mixed in there, too, though, was something completely different, which was scary to watch unfold. One person posted something similar to “I know it’s so-and-so that took her”. Then another chimed in with: “Yeah, well he’d better watch out because I know what truck he drives.” And another: “Well, I know where he lives so he’d better not come home anytime soon because I’ll be waiting for him.”
From a single post, a community of people rallied together to help, but in very different ways. For some, the sense of mob justice started taking over. I never did find out how that situation ended; it just seemed to fizzle out without any resolution on Facebook, but I remember thinking that I don’t know so-and-so, but wow, am I ever glad that I’m not him right now. Maybe he’s not a nice person, maybe he’s hurt a lot of people in the past, I don’t know, but what if he was innocent in this situation? If he happened to go out for a leisurely drive or to the store to pick up milk, he would have had a gang of people after him and (judging from some of the comments) it definitely wouldn’t have ended well.
In the article “Digital vigilantism: think before putting pictures of ‘wrongdoing’ online” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/29/digital-vigilantism-think-before-pictures-of-wrongdoing-online), Bronwen Clune makes a good point – when our friends publicly shame others on Facebook, we need to be very careful to analyze both sides of the story before judging and potentially becoming part of a witch hunt. The article goes on to state that “Internet vigilantism does have a place and a very important public function: to keep those in power accountable.”
So, I guess social media really is a mix of the good and the bad, isn’t it?

Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com (www.stockmonkeys.com)

Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com (www.stockmonkeys.com)