There is no question in my mind that the democratization of the media brought about by blogs, and the enhancements to communications brought by platforms like Facebook and Twitter, have been a net benefit to society.
But there is an element to social media, in particular, that’s grown disturbing. Specifically, the rise of online mob justice.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but the recent kerfuffle between Goldmark – a property management company which operates in North Dakota and other states – and one of their tenants inspired me to write.
Here’s what happened.
A Grand Forks woman renting a garage space from Goldmark found the stuff she had stored there thrown in a dumpster and someone else’s car – apparently one belonging to a relative of a Goldmark employee – parked in her spot. Her sister posted a picture of the disposed items in the dumpster on Facebook and accused Goldmark of having basically evicted the woman with no notice. She even alleged that law enforcement was involved in the matter, though that didn’t turn out to be the case.
The Facebook posting got thousands of comments and shares, and now no small amount of bad publicity for Goldmark.
Goldmark says the trashing of the items was not something authorized by any Goldmark employee. It seems from the accounts so far that the relative of a Goldmark employee went rogue for whatever reason. Regrettable, sure, but certainly not Goldmark’s fault.
There seems to be no question that this woman was wronged. She was apparently paid up on her lease, and even if she wasn’t there would be no excuse for trashing her personal belongings. But was the best way to respond to this to organize an online lynch mob to go after Goldmark?
Could maybe this have been settled without the online drama? What has been described as the “internet outrage cycle?”
Admittedly, I could probably find a more sympathetic case.
It doesn’t help that Goldmark has a bad reputation in some of the communities it serves (whether that’s fair or not I have no idea never having had any dealings with the company myself). In fact, Heidi Heitkamp is probably in the U.S. Senate right now because she deftly exploited angst over Goldmark’s business practices to pull votes away from her Republican challenger Rick Berg who helped found the company.
But the company seems to have handled this unfortunate incident admirably. While it’s not yet entirely clear what happened, the company initially offered to pay for an attorney for the woman to pursue a legal remedy before offering an outright settlement which seems to have been accepted.
And I could just as easily be writing about Justine Sacco. She is the former PR executive who wrote an ill-advised joke on Twitter about getting AIDS while in Africa before getting on a flight to that continent only to land hours later to find her life turned upside down by internet outrage. A year later Sam Biddle of Gawker, one of the online writers to skewered Sacco for her tweet, wrote a retrospective about the incident after becoming the target of internet outrage himself.
It’s a thought provoking read, and well worth your time because every day now we get a story like this. Some online posting makes accusations which are immediately seized upon and shared by others who aren’t in any position to determine their veracity. Meanwhile the target of the accusations is left in a lose-lose situation.
Whether the accusations were accurate or not doesn’t even matter. They’re stuck either having to argue with the internet – rarely a winning proposition – or tacitly admitting guilt.
We are enabling this every time we click to like or retweet something which outrages us without taking a moment to consider whether or not the outrage is justified. As an individual act that may be innocent. But in the aggregate, multiplied by millions and millions of internet users, it becomes something much more dangerous and dark.
It’s like a toddler walking around with a loaded gun.
The internet is a powerful weapon, and very often we use it too cavalierly.