Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When the Internet attacks

New York Times magazine has a fascinating article about people whose lives have been destroyed by ill-considered moments on the Internet and the virtual lynch mobs that descended upon them (something I've posted about in the past).

I find this phenomenon pretty terrifying, especially as someone who has blogged for eight years, written over a thousand posts, and said various things over the years that have either been stupid or completely misperceived or both.

Whatever you make of whether the people in the article "deserved" what they had coming to them, I have a hard time seeing how Internet vigilante justice is something that is any way beneficial.

What do you think? Do you trust that the punishment fits the crime? And once a virtual mob starts, how can you stop it?

Art: The Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle


Joanne Huspek said...

I'm with you, probably said things that were misinterpreted or stupid (or both), but still, that does not justify the trolls. I've seen the craziness, and it's not pretty, and what over? Words? Your opinion? The scary thing is when you use your real name. Then the online mob could become a real life menace. I now wish I had begun my online life with a pen name.

Bryan Russell said...

I think such mob reactions are particularly problematic when so much is taken out of context. What might have been an ironic denunciation, for example, could be taken as literal support. Text can be easily manipulated and propagandized, and this can be done with little care for the actual individuals behind the words.

And it's easy to form a mob when there are no repercussions, when the individuals within the mob are faceless and anonymous. And the internet is home to endless snap judgments. This person said this! Why bother checking to see if it's true? Why care about context? Who has time for that? I just have time to type out my rabid denunciation in the name of rightness...

A. A. Woods said...

Boy, that is a terrifying idea. For us bloggers and writers, the eternal memory of the internet can be intimidating.

I agree with Bryan, that the anonymity of the internet makes the snap decisions and the polarizing sides much easier to justify. I mean, some of the comments I've received are things no person would ever say to my face. But with an anonymous comment or email, it makes it feel ok. And with our average 3 second attention span, I think people don't take time to think through their real opinion and rather just jump on the bandwagon that feels the strongest.

I'm not sure if there's a solution, but I guess I just try to be authentic and kind and hope that people will return the favor....

daniel t. radke said...

Ah, like the great Goodreads/Bullies debate. I had a book of mine thrashed for posting on that thread.

God that was a fun 24 hours.

Nathan Bransford said...


That craziness still hasn't totally died for me.

daniel t. radke said...

It was mind-boggling how heated that all got. Seems like you would've been better off taking a stance on gun control or abortion.

Mirka Breen said...

I will never understand why some seemingly sane folks think that the (again, seeming) anonymity of the Internet makes it a good place to unleash their darker side.
Our laws and law enforcement are behind the curve on this sort of aggression.
I have a self-policy to never review a book or a product, or respond to a post, anonymously. I hope it doesn't come back to bite me.

Kai Strand said...

Knowing how very human I am, I'm rather terrified of this as well.

I'm not fond of anything that involves a mob mentality. Whenever I see something like that happen online - even if I think what the person did was stupid - it always makes me picture the scene from Disney's Beauty and the Beast when the villagers grab their pitch forks and cry, "Kill the beast." People don't make solid, well thought out decisions in those circumstances. Passion often leads to rash action and it's too hard to take it back once it is on the internet and apologies rarely sound genuine online. Best to avoid getting riled up by the crowd. Close the browser and walk away.

Anonymous said...

Do you remember "#RomFail"? I joined in for awhile because it never dawned on me that we were trashing the works of real people.

That's the problem with the Internet:when we tweet or post about a piece of work or a person, we are making an open comment about a living, breathing human being who's sitting on the other side of the signal.

When we "gang up" on someone who tweeted something irresponsible, I know that many do not stop and think as to whether or not they know that person. Perhaps the user possesses a dry sense of humor that loses tone when tweeted.

I wish people would stop. Give a benefit of a doubt.

BTW, I stopped participating in #RomFail because one day an author stepped in and defended herself and I realized that we'd been taking her writing out of context and...being just plain mean. My goal since then is to take that lesson and never repeat such a behavior.

Jaimie Teekell said...

Holy crap that story. Props to the writer Jon Ronson for the 11-hour flight framing device, assuming that was not the immediately obvious angle. It's brilliant. Just like novels, you know something's working when I'm glad the article is long.

"It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script."

I was in an online writer's group years ago and these witch hunts acted as a sort of social glue for us, so much so that when I proposed we drop them from our group discussion, well... that was the big fight that ended up in me quitting. People can be so literal in these moments. #ImWhite could never be meant ironically, and me refusing to participate in public shaming must mean I'm a bigot myself.

Thanks for sharing, Nathan! I don't think I would have seen this otherwise.

Ernie J. Zelinski said...

Just shows the relevance of this quotation:

"Ignorance is never out of style. It was in fashion yesterday, it is the rage today and it will set the pace tomorrow."
— Frank Dane

dolorah said...

Bullying is wrong. We all make stupid remarks - like the one guy who made a dumb joke to his buddy - and should not be publicly shamed for a moment of insensitivity. The internet, and social media especially, has made people feel entitled to publish every thought in their head. Not always bright, but certainly not usually meant to hurt anybody.

And then there are comedians, or news moguls, who are allowed to make any racist or bullying remark and people praise them for their wit.

I don't understand the mob mentality need to trash someone's reputation. Those people did not deserve the punishment for their glib remarks.

That could just as easily be me - or any other average person.

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

Sometimes, things just boil over and take on a life of their own. Internet comments can sting but don't scare me nearly as much as doxxing or other activities that have bloomed out of the digital age. All it takes are a few individuals not happy enough with merely ruining your online life to turn "offline" life into a horror movie.

Hopefully, most mobs are fickle and have short attention spans if you just run away for awhile.

L. Shanna said...

As a teacher, I'm hoping that students are reading that NYT article and taking it to heart.

Sam Taylor said...

This article terrified me. I always try to think before I speak, especially online, because nothing on the internet can be erased ... but really, we are all human and at some point we will all say something we shouldn't have. Does this excuse stupid and even horrible remarks? No. But neither is it reason for a lynch mob to arise, with cruel hashtags and campaigns to boot. I don't think any of these people deserve to have their professional and even personal lives ruined. Sometimes I really feel the internet is the place where civility goes to die. It's so easy to vilify another from the safety of our screens, that it's easy to forget how quickly that other could become ourselves one day.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Your post made me think about Gamergate and how one bitter ex-boyfriend wrote a blog post where he basically trashed his girlfriend online, and that blog post eventually led to an online mob of gamers attacking women (particularly female gamers) online, to the point that the women felt scared for their lives and one of them even moved. Of course, that originally blogger claimed he wasn't responsible, but he showed no remorse for his own actions regarding humiliating his ex-girlfriend, though he probably didn't realize that in discouraging other people from dating her, he basically revealed the kind of person he really is, which would dissuade many women from ever dating him. Those online bullies are monsters online and cowards in real life.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I should add that that ex-boyfriend wasn't solely responsible for Gamergate, but he was definitely part of it.

Mike Ranson said...

A very good piece. Very striking. Very frightening. Like cancer, social media could 'happen' to any of us, and we don't even need to breath second hand smoke to get it.

Also, the irony of the exhortation to follow @NYTimes at the end of the article was not lost on me!

Alana Roberts said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It's terrifying. Twitter in particular seems to be a roaming mob of barbarians looking for someone to deprive of his livelihood and reputation.

Then again, I feel like if anyone would just stand up to them they would have to back down. Why does everyone apologize for stuff that the mob purposely misunderstands?

Cynthia said...

Sometimes people say the wrong thing and that was exactly what they meant to say.

But other times, I see someone who tried saying the right thing, and it came out wrong. Or they said the right thing, and for any given reason, it was still negatively interpreted by an audience.

I've said things before with good intentions that didn't come out the way I wanted it to. Knowing that, I try to avoid being a bandwagon finger pointer.

Related Posts with Thumbnails