Web Culture

Has Internet Mob Justice Gone Too Far?

Guy McDowell 20-08-2015

A lion gets lured out of its protected habitat and killed. A person is raped and police refused to investigate. A parent was falsely accused of being a child molester.


No matter who you are, at least one of those events tugged at your heart strings. At least one of them incited some rage in you Outrage Porn Is Making You Angry And Dumb, Stop Looking At It Revenge porn is articles, pictures, cartoons or other media that are carefully crafted (either intentionally or not) to make people like you very offended, and very angry. Read More . In the past, all we could do was hope or say a prayer that it would get resolved. Then we’d try to make our immediate world a little better.

“It takes great courage to open one’s heart and mind to the tremendous injustice and suffering in our world.” – Vincent A. Gallagher

Then along came the Internet. Now we can talk back to the newspapers, we can speak back to the radio, we can be our own publisher or broadcaster now. Now, we have the power of media and we’re not going to take it anymore. Good idea or bad idea? A force for justice, or a digital lynch mob?

angry mob

In some cases, the outcome has been positive by most people’s accounts. In some cases, lives were destroyed. Even when it wasn’t necessary or, even worse, when the evidence was false. Why do we get so mean on the Internet? Why The Internet Provides A Thriving Environment For Hate & Trolling [Opinion] Aidan Dwyer entered and won a science competition. What happened next is something that those of us that have been on the Internet for a long time now would not find very surprising. The story... Read More

It seems, more often than not, that the outcome of Internet mob justice could be even more unjust than whatever the accused allegedly did. Sometimes, we persecute people on the Internet for just being noticed 5 People Who Became Memes, And How They Reacted These five people are great case studies for what happens when you go from Average Joe to Internet Meme overnight. Read More .


How Did This All Start?

It’s hard to say when the power of the Internet was first used to exact justice. Possibly the first case of the Internet getting used for activism was in 1990. Lotus (then a software giant) and Equifax (the credit reporting agency) had planned to produce a database called MarketPlace. It listed the names, addresses, and spending habits of 120 million Americans. This was a huge violation of people’s privacy, yet the average person never would have heard about it.

Apple II

Computer enthusiasts and professionals did hear about it on electronic bulletin boards How We Talk Online: A History of Online Forums, From Cavemen Days To The Present Let’s take a step back and think about the wonders of modern technology for one second. The web has made it possible to participate in near-instant communication on a global scale. Join me as I... Read More and in e-mails. Over 30,000 people told Lotus that they wanted their information removed from the database. The database product got pulled. Lotus cited as the reason, “…the substantial, unexpected additional costs required to fully address consumer privacy issues.” Unfortunately, exploiting privacy for profit What Does Facebook Know About You? Why You Should Delete Facebook What does Facebook really know about you? One thing's for sure: if you want online privacy, Facebook is best avoided. Read More is still an issue today.

That seems like a righteous use of technology to rise against an injustice. There was a clear violation of law, proof that it was going to happen, and people did what was their legal right to do. They simply asked to not get included. No courts, no fuss, no one got hurt. So what happened to this kind of activism?


When Did it Turn Ugly?

Again, it’s hard to identify the turning point. Still, it’s easy to define when activism becomes vigilantism. It’s at the point where it goes from acting lawfully, to acting on dubious information and without applying the golden rule. The golden rule being, of course, to do to others as we would have them do to us. That is when the opportunity for an injustice to be met with an equal or greater injustice arises.

“Lands of great discoveries are also lands of great injustices.” – Ivo Andric

It’s a hackneyed comparison, but the Internet is still a lot like the wild west you’ve seen in old movies. In such a vast expanse, with no real law, or any sort of governance, we’re open to do pretty much whatever we want to do.

That’s a great thing! And, that’s a bad thing!

It all depends what we do with that freedom. Often, whoever is fastest on the keyboard gets to deal out their brand of justice.


Internet Shaming – The New Scarlet A

Much of the mob justice takes the form of public shaming. Shame is a much-debated topic. Some call it an emotion we feel when we see that we haven’t kept ourselves to our own standards. Some call it an external effect, heaped upon us when someone else calls us out on what we did.

The debate deepens when we start to look at shaming as an effective or ethical way to discipline someone. About a hundred years ago, we stopped putting people in stocks and branding their skin for their crimes. We saw that the effect of that could extend to the family and friends of the accused. We saw that sometimes the punishment just never ended.

Men in Stocks



So what makes it alright for us to shame people on the Internet? Or do we just think that we can get away with it because everybody else is doing it, and we use pseudonyms? Do we feel bolder because we are anonymous, or as the case may be, Anonymous?

“Those who plead their cause in the absence of an opponent can invent to their heart’s content, can pontificate without taking into account the opposite point of view and keep the best arguments for themselves, for aggressors are always quick to attack those who have no means of defense.” – Christine de Pizan

This quote speaks about how easy it is for us to judge someone we’ve never met on just a few words someone else has told us. It’s even easier to attack someone when they don’t see it coming.

For example, the person from Melbourne who was falsely accused of being a pedophile on Facebook for taking a selfie with a Star Wars poster. He made the mistake of saying anything to some kids that were nearby. He said, “I’ll only be a second, I’m taking a selfie to send to my kids.” When the story got to a parent of one of the kids, it became the person saying, “Hey kids.”, then taking a picture of them, and then saying “I’m going to send this to a 16 year old.”

melbourne selfie

Set aside the issue of a man not being able to take a picture in public, or say anything to kids, without getting called a pedophile. Just look at the legal aspects. The parent did share their concerns with mall management and police. That’s the right thing to do when concerned. Where it went too far was when the accuser shared it with Facebook. There, they posted, “Ok people, take a look at this creep.”, and, “…hopefully he is caught.” The parent became the judge, handed out a sentence, and posted it in the town square.

That’s too far. The accused person felt they had to go through a police interrogation and search to clear their name. There’s also the fact that the accusation went out to over 20,000 people – with a picture of the accused.

What’s on the Internet stays on the Internet Nothing Gets Deleted From the Internet, Ever. Here's How. These people are trying to back up everything on the web. It's a big job, but you can help. Read More . How many times is this person going to have to explain the situation or defend his actions? For how many years? For what? Being a polite person and taking a selfie, like seemingly billions of people do every day?

But it gets worse. After this, there was a backlash against the accuser. Death threats had the accuser appealing to the public by apologizing for the public shaming.

“My kids are now suffering because of a stupid mistake I made.”, she said.

Two families torn apart. Two massive injustices – all for a wrong that never happened.

What if the Accusation is Accurate?

The Internet is still ablaze with outrage over the demise of Cecil the lion. It’s safe to say rightfully so. But is it right that people vandalized Walter Palmer’s home?

Cecil the Lion

Vigilantes spray painted “Lion Killer” on the garage door. They left pickled pigs feet in the dentist’s driveway. Death threats came from all directions. Is any of that fair? Dr. Palmer got forced to shut down the dentistry practice. Is that fair to the patients?

Perhaps the most salient question is, did doing those things fix anything? At best, it made the mob feel like they’ve gotten some vengeance. At worst it may destroy the lives of Walter Palmer and the Palmer family.

Sorry, that’s just not the mob’s job.

What if we used the power of this ubiquitous technology to lobby for legal justice? What if we all wrote to our politicians, showing support for extraditing Dr. Palmer? Zimbabwe is seeking extradition. We could use our social networks in a democratic fashion. We could say, “Hey, if you decide to extradite Dr. Palmer, you’ll get no complaints from us.”

Dr. Palmer claims the Internet mob justice has left him unscathed. He claims, “…everything is just fine.” It remains to be seen how long everything will be fine for Dr. Palmer, though.

Has Internet Mob Justice Ever Seriously Hurt People?

Recall the events of Donglegate. Two people made a genital-related joke about a piece of hardware known as a dongle. Phonetically, the word is similar to dong – a slang word for a penis. Then one of these people made a comment to the other about the presenter on stage, saying, “I would fork his repo.”

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

Another person overheard this discussion, and felt the need to bring this matter to the attention of the Jury of the Internet. The only evidence provided was a picture of the two people and the prosecutor’s statement of, “Not Cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ”big“ dongles. Right behind me…”

donglegate tweet

To clarify, the person who made the, “[I would fork that guy’s repo].” remark said it is a technoslang way of saying, “I would be glad to use (fork) that person’s work (repo or repository) in my projects.”

The debate still continues about whether the statements were sexist or not, and whether either party should have done what they did. As long as we are willing to talk about it, the debate will continue.

What didn’t continue were the jobs of two people; one of the accused, and the accuser. Also, there were violent threats against those involved from all sides. There were libelous and slanderous insults. There is the forever-lasting effect of getting associated with this fiasco every time their names get mentioned.

The accuser’s employer suffered a shut down at the hands of hackers, dishing out justice, in the form a of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. People who had nothing to do with this lost wages. Things went too far.

What if the Accused was Found Guilty by Law?

There was a case where Internet intervention helped force a criminal trial to court. But only after going through the absurdities of victim shaming, cover-ups to protect the accused, and a police service that just didn’t seem to care. In Steubenville, Ohio, two teenagers raped and abused another teenager and posted pictures of it on-line.

Steubenville, Ohio US Route 22 Bridge

But somewhere along the way, major media released the name of the victim. With the case being so exposed by the Internet mob, thousands of people now knew the victim’s name. The news stories were shared and re-shared. Now, not only are there pictures of the victim being violated, the victim’s name now rides along with those pictures.

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” – Charles Darwin

Although the initial intent may have been good, the outcome was that a person who suffered one of the most humiliating things a person can suffer will continue to be reminded of it. They will have no control over when or where. The Internet does not forget. That’s the case of the victim in the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial.

Has Internet Mob Justice Ever Had Only Positive Results?

Whenever vigilantism is involved, and laws get broken to try to get some sense of justice, the quality of the outcome is subjective at best – and dubious at worst. In another rape case, the argument could be made that there were several positive outcomes. Perhaps not what the people of the Internet were hoping for, but still positive.

The case of Rehtaeh Parsons draws many parallels to the Steubenville case. She was at a party and was allegedly sexually assaulted by two other people. Pictures got taken and spread around on the Internet. Mocking and bullying of the victim continued through social media. Tragically, Rehtaeh took her own life to try to escape the torment.

When the people who loved Rehtaeh couldn’t get the legal justice that they deserved, they took to social media. Yet their pleas weren’t for smiting vengeance on the accused, but for a re-investigation of the case. It took a long time and the eventual intervention of Anonymous to force the government’s hand.

Is that the Internet mob going too far? Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, doesn’t think so. It is possible that Anonymous’ intervention prompted the forming of an independent inquiry into the handling of the case, although officials won’t ever admit that.

Further investigation did lead to charges. Convictions came only on the child pornography charges. In Canada, if you take or distribute a lewd picture of an underage person, it is child pornography – it doesn’t matter if you are underage as well. Perhaps not the outcome the Internet was hoping for, but it is some legal justice after all.

Positive outcomes still continue to come from this situation. Glen Canning has also been sharing the tragedy that criminal harassment, a.k.a. bullying, has on young people. He successfully used the platform to raise awareness. This led to more specific and stronger laws about harassment online.

The case also lead to reviews of how schools handle mental health issues, and educate students. It has also led to a call for more youth psychiatrists for the province. At the time of writing this, there are only 17 youth psychiatrists in Nova Scotia, serving a population of around 1 million people.

Cole Harbour-District High School

There have also been inquiries into how hospitals handle youth presenting with mental health issues.
It could be said that the Internet’s intervention has had very positive outcomes in this case. Who knows how many lives will be saved from death and ruin, just in this one tiny province?

So, Has Internet Mob Justice Gone Too Far?

The question has no simple global answer. As we’ve seen, there have been cases where good came from the power of people on the Internet. Sometimes we’ve forced the hand of the law, and sometimes we’ve challenged a person’s ethics. Hopefully, they will change.

However, Internet vigilantism has resulted in real word harm to either the accused or the accuser, in so many cases.

The argument still circles back to the historical perspective on vigilantism and public shaming.

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.” – Bonnie Myotai Treace

There are good reasons why we abandoned these methods around a hundred years ago. The punishment can far outweigh the crime and the people involved can be robbed of a chance to change themselves. Perhaps it’s best if we left the archaic use of new technology behind as well.

Image Credits: Angry Villagers via Shutterstock, Cecil the lion, US Capitol Building, Cole Harbour District High School, Men in Bramhall Stocks, Angry Mob of Four, via Wikimedia, Steubenville Ohio US Route 22 Bridge, Boston Public Library, Apple II, Jurvetson, via Flickr, Melbourne Selfie, via Linkis.

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  1. Margarit
    April 10, 2016 at 10:52 pm

    Great article; comprehensive, short, and an awesome starting point for further research. I'm using this as a source for a law essay I'm writing about online vigilantism. Will properly cite you. Thanks!

    • Guy McDowell
      April 13, 2016 at 12:37 am

      Hi Margarit, thank you for your kind words. I'm honoured.

      It's a tricky subject. Definitely one worthy of discussion and consideration.

  2. Anonymous
    August 21, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Frankenstein is still with us. It is the Internet. A creature assembled from bits and pieces of hundreds of other things – some alive, some dead, some beautiful, some criminal, some incomprehensible – all stitched together and “scientifically” endowed with life. The result for Mary Shelley, as it is for us, is an over-sized, somewhat dangerous, hideous yet beautiful creature.

    And with the monster loose, the town’s people are panicking. The politicians, listening to the loudest and least informed town folk, demand that the monster be destroyed. People hate it, people fear it. Pitchforks are sharpened, torches are lit - the monster must be controlled or destroyed, the Internet must be legislated into mediocrity.

    The monster, for its part, is largely misunderstood. Nothing like it has ever lived before. It is viewed with awe and suspicion. It is always in danger. It is always striving to find its true nature.

    Just as the monster from the book forces us to examine our humanity, so the Internet forces us to confront our darker side. Don’t rush to kill the monster.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 24, 2015 at 11:27 pm

      Dude. That was epic. I may steal bits of that for related articles, if that's okay with you.

      • Anonymous
        August 27, 2015 at 1:01 am

        Honored. Come visit the entire piece at Loadedmouse on blogspot.

  3. Anonymous
    August 21, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    This is a very well written, very evenly thought-out piece. Thanks Guy!. I think my biggest worry now is that there is always the potential to take things even further. Given the instantaneous nature of internet communications, how long is it going to be before someone stumbles upon one of these heinous (either real or perceived) circumstances, tweets out a location and a REAL, physical mob shows up. Things can escalate and get way out of control very quickly. Unfortunately, to take steps which might lessen the odds of this happening defeat the purpose of all the neat things we can now do instantly, and essentially "throw the baby out with the bath water". Where do we go from here?

    • Guy McDowell
      August 24, 2015 at 11:29 pm

      It's a tough topic. The nature of humans is to seek justice, revenge, vengeance or whatever they can get if the regular channels can't provide it.

      It's how we seek those things that matter, I think. Often the right way is the slowest and most tedious way. Convenience kills.

  4. Anonymous
    August 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    This article was sorely needed!

  5. Anonymous
    August 21, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing your important and balanced thoughts Guy.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 24, 2015 at 11:29 pm

      Thank you for reading. I'm humbled.

  6. Anonymous
    August 21, 2015 at 12:28 am

    "Why do we get so mean on the Internet?"
    Because there are no circuit-breakers on the Internet, especially on the social networking sites. Because if it wasn't true, it would not be on the 'Net.

    When we send a Letter to the Editor there is someone who vets the letter for possible problems. When we call a radio show, all comments are on a 7 second delay. etc., etc., etc. There are no such mechanisms on the Internet so a poster can say just about anything.

    What about the Ashley Madison case? Security experts have not yet determined the veracity of the hack but news outlets already ran with the story in their mad rush to be the firstest with the mostest, or, in this case, the most salacious. It turns out that many of the email addresses on the list released by The Impact Group were not the addresses of Ashley Madison clients. It seems those addresses were harvested for some other reason by parties unknown. Already polls are being conducted by news outlets on how the respondents feel about the people who use Ashley Madison site. The responses range from "Who cares, they are all adults" to "These perverts deserve any consequences."

    To answer your question properly would take a treatise the size of Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and even that may not be exhaustive enough.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 24, 2015 at 11:34 pm

      I agree.

      As soon as the Ashley Madison story hit, I saw friends on Facebook commenting about how it serves the bastards right.

      None of them took a second to think any further. What if it wasn't some bastard, but it was their mom?

      What if it was some jerk who thought it'd be funny to sign their friend or enemy up?

      What if the hackers injected a bunch of false data to bring down their enemies? Seems like the NSA is on the list a fair bit. Surely NSA people are smarter than that. Maybe.

      People feel powerless in their everyday lives. We love seeing someone else get nailed.

      Think of how you feel when you see someone pulled over on the road for speeding. You feel avenged. You feel joy. And then you continue speeding because you know the odds of another cop being around are probably less.

      We're all hypocrites.
      We're all liars.
      We're all cheats.

      If anyone tells you they've never been a hypocrite, lied, or cheated, put your hand over your wallet and back away quickly.

  7. Anonymous
    August 20, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Um, isn't Mob Justice always too far?

    • Guy McDowell
      August 20, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      You are not wrong. :)
      But that would have made for a short article, wouldn't it?

      Raising awareness and forcing the hand of the law is one thing. Mob justice, in the strict sense, is always too far.