Thursday, 14 May 2015

Online vigilantism

Recently I have noticed an increase in the number of ‘name and shames’ occurring online, for anything from annoying people on the tube, to outright accusations of criminal activity. While I believe that social media has a part to play in the prosecution of justice, much of the way these types of things are handled at the moment gives me cause for concern. In particular, the presumption of guilt before such has been proven, and the implicit or explicit incitement to a sort of mob justice that follows.

One example occurred on May 12, in which a man was accused on Facebook of taking photos of children. The man later responded to the accusation by saying he was taking a selfie with a picture of Darth Vader as a joke to send to his children, and is taking legal action due to the damage to his character. Full story.

I have seen examples of people accused of theft, assault, and other crimes. My concern is that these posts, which essentially side step the provision of innocent until proven guilty, will encourage violence against people who may not deserve it (or even against those who may). Consider the following hypothetical scenario: a photo of a man is posted online, accusing him of, say, child abuse. It is well known that emotions run high in such cases, and the community take matters into their own hands, and deliver the man in the picture of a beating. Now, consider the following possibilities.
  1. The wrong picture was uploaded, and the wrong man takes a beating.
  2. The person who was beaten looks similar to the man in the photo, but is not the man in the photo.
  3. The person is the man in the photo, but suffers from mental impairment, and would not be able to be held legally responsible for his crime.
  4. The man in the photo catches a beating, but it turns out the child fabricated the story. 
Even if the person is guilty, and in the eyes of many ‘got what he deserved’, does this give us the right to provoke such action? Even if the man is never attacked, how would he be expected to get a fair trial after such a witch hunt? If accusations are smeared all over the internet, we have reached the stage where, often, accused equals guilty?


I am not saying I feel particularly sympathetic towards certain criminals, nor that they do not deserve certain punishments. What I am saying is that the protections we have built up in law through centuries of trial and error (if you’ll forgive the pun) exist for very good reasons, and it might make sense to think twice before posting accusations of criminal activity online. Hell, it might make sense to think twice before shaming anyone online. That fat, sweaty guy on the tube might have a medical condition. The stinky kid on the bus may have been pushed into the mud by bullies at school. The point it, once it’s out there, it can’t be taken back, and that is a bigger step to take on someone else’s behalf than many of us seem to realise.