5 Things Vigilantes Do to Screw Themselves
Have you ever wondered what happens to people who get called out for saying inappropriate things online? I haven't, because I'm kind of dumb and like to spend my free time thinking about ice cream. But Jon Ronson of The New York Times did, and he discovered that the punishment tends to fit the crime about as well as Malibu Ken's tank top fits LeBron James. Make a tweet that the Internet doesn't like and you can say goodbye to your career, your friends, and your dating life.
It's concerning that the Internet can turn one dumb joke into a life-ruining experience, but what's even more alarming is that the way the Internet works is designed to encourage it. So if you're ever tempted to insult someone who was accused of stiffing their waitress on a tip, keep in mind that ...
The Internet Isn't Designed to Handle the Nuance of Justice
As the unfortunate continued existence of Upworthy and its ilk reminds us, subtlety and nuance do not get rewarded on the Internet. "It Looks Like This Waitress Got Ripped Off by a Customer, so We're Going to Look Into It and Report Back in a Day or Two" doesn't make for a catchy headline. But "A Red Lobster Waitress Got a Racial Slur Instead of a Tip"? Hell yeah, I'm clicking on that. That gets my blood boiling hotter than the lobsters they serve to racists.
"This looks delicious, but do you have butter that's less ... yellow?"
Everything you need to know, get angry about, and share is right there in the title. Sure, if you read all the way to the third paragraph like some kind of nerd you'll learn that the incident was only alleged, but who has time for that when you could be raking in sweet, sweet likes? Cracked's David Bell pointed out that "alleged" meant "fake," but it took more than a month for the truth to come out. By that point, angry Internet users had already gone to their local Red Lobster and shit in the tanks. Or so I'm told.
The way we share content discourages long articles that provide crucial context. For example, let's say some unscrupulous fellow who's jealous of my countless Internet comedy groupies starts a rumor that I like to make out with ducks. Maybe he photoshops a picture of me macking on a bufflehead, or maybe he digs up an old joke I made about banging pigeons and presents it out of context. Whatever his strategy, it leads to catchy headlines like "Cracked? More Like Quacked!"
I would naturally want to defend myself from these heinous accusations, but it's hard to explain away insinuations of duck sex in 140 characters. So I write up a post on my website where I explain that, because I'm an amateur ornithologist, there are naturally going to be a lot of pictures of me around birds that could be manipulated, and that any jokes I've made about bird boning were directed at a small group of friends who knew about my hobby and would understand that I was joking around, and that it just flat-out isn't true that scrambled eggs give me a boner and I'm not sure where that idea even came from.
But by the time I have the chance to write that, the original story would be shared far and wide. Even if I knew the accusations were coming and prepared my defense in advance, an essay can't compete with catchy headlines being mindlessly shared. Most people would skip right over my boring, wordy defense, if they were even aware of it.
1,500 words and not a single picture? What is this shit, War and Peace?
This is also what prevents us from suggesting an appropriate punishment. It's never "This person should apologize and promise to do better." No, it's always "This person should be fired from their job and then fired out of a cannon into a fire." Once the Internet mob starts demanding e-blood, suggesting a less extreme option is all but impossible. The Internet gravitates to extremes because that's what the Internet rewards. The same mob mentality that makes a story popular in the first place makes it impossible to discuss rationally. As for how these stories can get so popular, well ...
Social Media Sites Inadvertently Encourage Misinformation
Let's double down on my hypothetical scenario, in what we'll pretend is a dedication to absurdist comedy and not a sign of my own laziness. Say someone decides to tweet or tumbl or ... pinter "Don't read anything by Mark Hill, because he likes to feed ducks a lot more than bread." But later he comes across my defense, accepts it, and edits his ... Foursquare? (I'm bad at social media, guys.) Something along the lines of "Update: I was wrong, the only thing Mark loves more appropriately than ducks is America."
It's nice of this hypothetical person to admit and correct their error, and that's certainly an attitude Internet discussions could use more of. But by the time they've issued their correction, the damage is already done. You can't put the pin back in the grenade, if the grenade is Tumblr and the pin is ... duck sex rumors? Whatever, you get it.
Tumblr and Twitter both inadvertently encourage misinformation through their retweeting/retumbling/reblogging/re-whateverthefucking functions, which allow you to forward a post free of that notorious killjoy: context. You can post all the updates you want, but if a dozen people have already reblogged your original post (or just didn't see your correction in a later post), then the inaccurate claim has spread exponentially. It's like trying to fight off the zombie apocalypse -- stopping patient zero is important, but if he's already bitten 10 people you've got a bigger problem on your hands. Because those 10 people go and bite 10 more, and they bite 10 more, and before you know it every zombie in the world thinks you're a duck fucker.
"We don't want your perverted brain, get out of here!"
Worse still, all those reblogs are going to be completely removed from any sort of serious discussion on the topic. They'll be wedged between reblogged cupcake recipes and cat memes. That's a scenario that actively discourages critical thought -- don't tell me you don't switch your brain off a little when you're browsing through a string of tweets. You'll accept "This recipe is totes amazing" and "Ew, Mark fucks ducks" as equally truthful statements, because there's no reason not to. Why would they share it if it wasn't true? Remember, there's absolutely no context or dialogue to suggest that the matter is up for debate. Nor is there any particular reason to dig into it further. You trust the people you follow on MySpace and MapQuest, right?
"I never considered you to be a mega-whore, honey, but three different YouTube commenters can't all be wrong."
Besides, social media is already so casual and fast-paced that it's difficult to think of its users as real people with lives beyond their username, and thus the amount of thought put into their situation and potential fate plummets accordingly. So if you tweet one distasteful joke and then apologize for it an hour later, prepare to potentially deal with years of backlash for your initial comment. It's like trying to fight a forest fire with a Super Soaker -- just when you think you've finally put out the last embers, it flares up again on the other side of the forest.
We Get Mad at Abstract Concepts but Punish Individuals
When we see one of those probably fake stories about a waitress getting screwed on a tip, we don't really care about this anonymous nobody we'll never meet. No, we're thinking about the time we or someone we know got screwed working in the service industry. The customer who supposedly left a tip of "Get a better job, loser!" becomes a stand-in for the jerk who made fun of our uniform a decade ago. And then we start thinking about all of the general injustices of the service industry, and after that we just start getting mad at society in general.
"Fuck you, and fuck your oppressive patriarchy, dad!"
Getting mad is good, because few positive changes have come from being begrudgingly content. But we can't do anything about a complicated issue from the comfort of our living rooms, because few power-brokers are impressed by our ratty underwear and propensity to get distracted by YouTube videos. So we turn some random dude who quietly made a vaguely sexist joke at a tech conference into a symbol of everything even remotely wrong with the tech industry, which allows us to direct all of our rage at him. It's good that we're upset about the tech industry continuing to struggle with sexism. But if all we do is set up straw men and then tear those straw men to fucking pieces, we're just disproportionately punishing an individual rather than addressing the root cause.
No one learns a lesson, and no one inspires change. We're just venting. It would be like trying to combat cancer by building a giant effigy of a tumor and burning it in the town square. It's more satisfying than patiently funding research, and it lets everyone get together to talk about how much they hate cancer, but at the end of the day it doesn't accomplish anything.
That's why I support burning effigies that represent effigy burning. It's meta.
I'm in no position to demand that instead of ravaging people for minor mistakes you go out and fight for major social change, because my position involves a beanbag chair and a Doritos-dusted Zelda shirt. But think about what these revenge campaigns are trying to accomplish, and then think about the end result. Is someone who made one sexist joke going to see the error of his ways after spending all week sitting on his couch and thinking it over because he lost his job? Or is he more likely to listen to the one group on the Internet that isn't currently telling him that he's human garbage? Because if that group is made up of the sort of people who argue that all women are bitches who oppress men, ostracizing a guy who made a very minor contribution to the problem is only going to drive him to the dark side. And that will just leave us with more to be mad about in the future.
We Like Outrage and Revenge More Than We Like Facts
There's a reason that outrage-inducing headlines do well -- getting outraged is fun. You can finally use that clever insult you've been saving because, while it would be inappropriate to employ it against a co-worker you don't like, there's nothing too inappropriate for someone that the Internet has made a pariah. Call them a fartlicker as much as you want, because they're already hearing much, much worse.
There's no end to the benefits. Normally, saying, "Waitstaff should be tipped well," or, "The tech industry needs to be more inclusive," inspires no reaction, because they're such standard, non-controversial opinions that it would be surprising if you didn't have them. But once the Internet's found a target, sharing those exact same opinions suddenly makes you a hero who's standing up for the little guy. We can pat ourselves on the back for supporting common human decency. In everyday life you're not rewarded for not being an asshole -- it's just expected that you won't punch your neighbor in the back of the head no matter how loudly he's playing "Hollaback Girl" on repeat. But if a story of someone actually doing it goes viral, you can congratulate yourself for not doing it as though resisting the urge was a titanic struggle. It's the adult equivalent of a participation ribbon.
"I was going to call Jessica a slut, but then I didn't."
I'm going to let you in on a bad habit of mine. If you're looking to score some heroin, I know a guy. Also, I like to browse websites full of terrible people -- Free Republic, anti-vaccine activists, large chunks of Reddit -- and simply marvel at the, shall we say, fringe beliefs being expressed. It's a waste of my time, and it's honestly a little arrogant. But if I'm feeling like an inferior human being -- maybe I got turned down for a date, maybe I mistook the crazy glue for ranch dressing -- browsing sites for crazy people cheers me up. I can say to myself, "Well, I may have fucked up today, but at least I don't believe that vaccines cause Super-AIDS."
"And I may believe that vaccines cause Super-AIDS, but at least I don't think that's God's way of punishing gay people!"
Knowing that you're right about something feels good, and ganging up on some poor bastard lets the whole Internet enjoy that feeling together. It's an emotional circle jerk. A circle ... tearjerk? We'll leave that to the philosophers. The problem is that if making a dumb racist joke on Twitter wins the gold medal at the Inappropriate Internet Activity Olympics, demonstrating how much you aren't racist by rushing to insult the winner will let you cruise to an easy silver. If you're getting angry so you can feel superior, you're getting angry for the wrong reasons. But getting angry for the right reasons doesn't let you bust out that sweet fartlicker burn, which makes the mature road a tough one to take.
There's No Motivation to Be Right
As Spike Lee taught us in She's Gotta Have It, it's important to do the right thing. But much like ... whatshisname only did what he did because he ... got something out of it (I haven't actually seen the movie; am I close?), everyone needs motivation. Often the fact that it's right is motivation in and of itself, like when you help a senior citizen across the street or spray whipped cream in your mouth -- you'd feel bad if you didn't do it. But when you're helping an old man across the street you don't see people pull up, roll down their windows and accuse you of trying to get into the old man's high-riding pants, and that's what separates doing the right thing in real life from doing it online.
"Hey man, I bet gramps also needs a hand ... with his cock! Heh, I'm funny."
If thousands of people are lambasting an innocent man for being a duck fucker, and one brave stranger stands up in his defense, that stranger can prepare themselves for a deluge of "Takes one to know one, pervert!" and a shit-ton of cloaca pictures. If you want a less ridiculous example, look at how the defenders of women targeted by Gamergate nonsense got their own fair share of threats and obscenities. Defending the Internet's latest target is a good way to become a target yourself, and usually it's just not worth the pain and hassle.
On the professional level, a site that runs a calm and collected analysis of the facts three days after a story breaks is going to get an infinitesimal fraction of the views that the sites who immediately ran the fake, sensationalized version received. The latter might eventually run a retraction, but they're not going to go out of the way to advertise their own ineptitude. The sites that want to check the facts, like Snopes, are the exact kind of sites that don't get a lot of clout in the culture that creates these bandwagons in the first place. That's why Cracked's B.S. News series will run until The Man shuts us down -- if there's a decision between "the satisfaction of being right" and "the ad revenue that will allow us to eat that comes with being wrong," that isn't going to keep a lot of people up at night.
"I knew there would be risks, but I never thought I'd be so turned off of duck confit."
We all have a bullshit meter that goes off when we sense that a story's too good to be true. And I think the only solution to this problem is to fine-tune our outrage meters. It's definitely a lesson I had to learn -- if a story gets your blood boiling and makes you want to rage against the injustices of the world (as represented by whatever schmuck is standing in for the injustices this week) take a deep breath before you hit "share" or fire off your witty zinger. It's not satisfying to stay your trigger finger, but if enough of us do it the Internet will be a nicer place. You can even still get that feeling of superiority by quietly feeling better than the people who fell for the latest fake story. Everyone wins!
For more from Mark on Cracked, check out 5 Behaviors Video Games Reward and Reality Calls Crazy and 4 Reasons Self-Pity is One of the Most Dangerous Emotions.
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