Once every couple of months, the quarreling masses of the internet put aside their differences for just a moment to completely and thoroughly fuck a person's life. Generally this person is guilty of some fiendishly clickable crime, like shooting a famous lion or tweeting something racist. Right now the collective id of the internet is lashing out at Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who raped a woman behind a dumpster and got a legal slap on the wrist for his crime. Hordes of outraged people on social media started looking for ways to punish Brock properly. And now we're getting headlines like this ...
And this ...
If you just pay casual attention to these digital beatdowns, you might find them satisfying, or funny, or just something to shrug at and go, "Oh, Internet, you vicious rascal, you." But there's something terrifying going on just beneath the surface ...
We've Turned Destroying People Into A Drug
Scientists have actually spent an enormous amount of time and brain-dollars trying to understand revenge. We've learned that contemplating revenge affects the brain in a similar manner as nicotine or cocaine, but we tend to feel worse after getting our vengeance. The exception seems to be when "the offender understands [revenge] as a response to his or her prior behavior," according to one study.
What the internet's given us is the chance to focus solely on the "good" parts of revenge: the joyous plotting and catharsis of seeing a bad person suffer for their crimes, but with none of the depressing downsides. It's easy to, say, spam the Yelp page of a lion-shooting dentist and feel good for a minute.
The man did a Bad Thing, and hundreds of people got to help punish him from the comfort of their homes and then move on to the next thing the internet dropped in front of them. The guy who shot Cecil the Lion was a dick, but it's kind of horrifying that the people who unraveled his life did it in between posting snarky YouTube comments and sending Snapchats of their genitals. We've turned the complex psychological process of wreaking vengeance into just another one of the dozens of social media "highs" we get throughout the day.
Back in 2004, when attacks by huge groups of anonymous internet people were still a fairly new thing, some talented 4channers programmed the Low Orbit Ion Cannon. It's a piece of software that makes it easy for anyone to devote a portion of their computer's processing power to carrying out DDOS attacks on a single target. The name is a reference to one of the superweapons from the Command & Conquer games, a giant space laser that fucks up its target and everything nearby.
The name was a tongue-and-cheek sorta thing and not very accurate since 4chan's Ion Cannon was used in very pointed attacks at single websites/organizations, like the Church of Scientology. But modern internet justice works exactly like an Ion Cannon, blasting its target and anyone nearby.
Innocent People Always Get Hurt (And Most Of Them Are Women)
Back before the media storm kicked up around Stanford rapist Brock Turner, when his trial was just getting started, his childhood friend Leslie Rasmussen wrote a letter defending his character. She wrote that the rape her friend committed was really just a "huge misunderstanding." It was a dumb letter, but every 20-year-old in the history of social media has written something dumb, somewhere. Most of us don't pay with our careers.
Leslie's the drummer of a band, Good English, and the backlash against her has essentially cratered the band's future. Note that neither of Leslie's bandmates even did anything wrong. Brock's father actually wrote a vastly more offensive letter defending his son, but he's a well-established government contractor. There's just not much internet backlash can do to him: Leslie and her band were way more vulnerable.
We're remarkably OK with splash damage during these rage benders, and because fact-checking gets in the way of righteous indignation it's incredibly common for hordes of wannabe vigilantes to rain hell down on the wrong person.
Hey, notice how all the victims in these cases of mistaken identity are women? That's another weird pattern: Internet mobs have a weird tendency to strike out at ladies, and researchers have found that young women experience disproportionately high levels of "severe" harassment. Women tend to walk (or limp) away from their brushes with internet justice far more traumatized than men.
While I was working on this article I conducted an interview with veteran Republican strategist Rick Wilson. He's one of the main faces of the #NeverTrump movement and the guy who famously called Trump supporters "low information voters" and "childless single men who masturbate to anime." Obviously, his Twitter feed spends a lot of time submerged in a river of fire. But Rick is a veteran political brawler and self-professed expert in attack ads. There's not much angry Trump supporters on 4chan can do to him, so they went after his 22-year-old daughter, who just graduated from college.
"They stalked her at her school, they followed her, they put notes on the door where she used to live," he says. "They've got people calling University of Tennessee saying, 'Eleanor Wilson's involved in prostitution and drug sales,' and all this other shit."
Ten seconds with Google, or just clicking this link, will bring you even more stories of internet mobs venting their wrath on the wrong person. And just like the new, shitty Superman, no number of innocent casualties will be enough to stop this. Because ...
Digital Vigilantism Works Really Well Sometimes
I've spent this whole article talking about how fucked up online vigilante justice can be. But all the downsides are complicated by the fact that sometimes angry mobs of internet users succeed where the justice system fails. The Church of Scientology had an army of lawyers to protect it in court, but that didn't mean shit when Anonymous set its sights on them.
Brock Turner is a young man who raped a woman behind a dumpster and got a six (really three) month sentence for his crimes. The punishment the internet leveled on him was not just more appropriate than his jail sentence, it might be the most appropriate punishment he could receive. An outpouring of memes and thinkpieces has ensured that he'll be "The Stanford Rapist" for the rest of his days.
Public shaming is one of the most effective punishments people have ever devised, and the only things the internet does better than public shaming involve masturbation. Not only can mob justice fix fuck-ups of regular justice, the sheer number of people involved can force the government to take positive action on something it would otherwise ignore. The outrage over Cecil the Lion's death led to new provisions in the Endangered Species Act aimed at making it harder for American citizens to hunt lions.
Anonymous' war on ISIS has included several innocent people being incorrectly identified as terrorists, but the group also may have foiled a terror attack. When this heavy gentleman was shamed for dancing by some assholes, the internet rose up not to attack his harassers but to throw him a sweet-ass party.
When collective vigilante justice works, it works so well that we're generally willing to forgive all the times it blows a hole in some random bystander's life.
It's a big game of Russian Roulette we all play every time we read about some injustice and decide we need to help. Manning the Ion Cannon is fun, and the sight of it hitting the right target is so satisfying, it's easy to ignore the fact that each of us is only sharing the name of one asshole away from being its next target.
Robert Evans wrote a book full of recipes for recreating strange ancient drugs: buy it here
Get more perspective on this tragedy in 5 Realities Of Date Rape Many Women Already Know and 8 Ways The Legal System Screws Rape Victims (Like Me).
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How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.
It's easy to work the system and win these awards even if you don't deserve them.