On 30 June of this year, after hours of meticulous planning, thousands of bribe-dollars and one serendipitous happenstance, Cecil—a thirteen-year-old lion—was lured from his animal sanctuary home and shot with an arrow by a U.S. dentist, Walter Palmer. You know the rest, so I’ll spare the more macabre details, but it bears repeating that Palmer, who shelled out at least fifty thousand American dollars for the dubious privilege, tracked the grievously injured lion for forty-two hours, presumably making notes in his diary like “I got that majestic and endangered son-of-a-bitch real good” and “this is fun, normal and American recreation… loving it!!!” before stumbling on what, at that stage, was probably minutes away from becoming his prey’s corpse. Palmer shot him anyway. Then he skinned and beheaded him, turning Cecil into a “trophy”. He took a touristic photo for good measure.
When you read the facts above relayed like that, it’s not hard to see why his actions were roundly condemned for being sociopathic at best and abjectly barbaric at worst. Still, boy were his actions condemned. The Telegraph revealed his name and occupation, after which Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and presumably Instagram and Goodreads as well, bent over backwards to show their derision. “#CeciltheLion KILLER needs to be put to death and stuffed thru the asshole”, reads one tweet. Peggy Morgan echoed this sentiment: “I demand justice for Cecil the Lion… I know a few of you are absolute lunatics. Please get to work on this”. Mia “IDGAF” Farrow tweeted the address of his home, which was promptly vandalised. His Yelp ratings bombed; his website was DDoSed; his phone was amock with prank phone calls.
And, quite frankly, who cares? It’s hard for me to muster much sympathy for a deranged asshole with an inferiority complex.
Rachel Dolezal is another recent target of an internet-stoked pasquinade; when the NAACP leader was “outed” (her word) or “revealed” (most media’s word) as a white woman passing as black to gain a position of power, the socialmediasphere reacted with apoplexy or pop-psychology (“she must be mentally not there on some level… honestly, i just pity her”).
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Pebbles Hooper’s spectacularly repulsive tweet ascribing the deaths of a family in Ashburton to “natural selection” generated similar outrage—although the predictable rape threats and gendered tweets like “natural selection should wipe out this slut” were a bit disquieting, and that Cam Slater publishes equally vile content and wins awards for it made the whole thing feel a bit bizarre. But on the whole her public humiliation was—or at least, felt—good. Both women were fired from their positions. Justice reigned. Right?
The DNA of public displays of punishment, retribution, discipline etc., can probably be traced back as far as we can—shit, the notion first crops up in the second book of the Bible—but for the sake of keepin’ it anno Domini, I invoke the example of Rome, where criminals were publicly crucified or slowly beaten to death by gladiatorial souls. Fast-forward a millennium: William Wallace was paraded through the streets before being (publicly) hung, drawn and quartered. Attending executions was deemed entertainment up until the Victorian Era.
The fact that these acts occurred in public was not incidental. The visibility of the punishment, the surrounding audience, compounded the humiliation and degradation suffered by the punished person, enhancing the savage indignity of the whole affair, but what of the voyeurs? If you were being generous you might attribute their motives as deterrent—“there go I but for the grace of God”—but realistically? People get a kick out of other people suffering, especially those who deserve it. It appeals to the sense of justice our society has instilled in us.
Now we’re more civilised, though certain rituals still remain. You can drive to Te Kuiti and witness the prisoner cell outside the courthouse dubbed “the human zoo” by locals, visible to all, and even commune with these folk while the judge mulls over whether to return an “innocent” or “guilty” verdict, but we’ve mostly eradicated our forums for public bloodsport. Mostly.
Owing to the ubiquity of the internet and especially social media, stocks and pillories have been supplanted by tweets and poorly-considered Facebook posts that, thanks to the handy Prt Sc key, can never be obliterated. Google Plus is the new gallows (or it would be if it hadn’t been such a massive disaster; remember when people said it was going to usurp Facebook’s reach? LMAO).
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a crotchety old Luddite here to lecture you about the perils of the internet and social media and the degeneracy of “e-interaction” and why you should stay off my pristine lawn. On the contrary, I’m of the opinion that the internet may be mankind’s most pivotal achievement. It’s not the tweeting, it’s how we’re tweeting: the way our brain releases endorphins, what triggers pleasurable responses, is something that the internet can passively manipulate. It’s tempting to blame the internet, but incendiary and outright bullying rhetoric has always permeated discourses both public and private; the internet just enables, or rather disables, certain inhibitions.
Ah yes, the old “Online Disinhibition Effect”. The argument is that when you log on to the internet, you assume a different identity to the one you show in face-to-face interaction. This identity is invariably more irreverent, rude, uncivil and uncensored. Essentially, the theory is that going on the internet has the same effect on your inhibitions as being shit-faced (so you can imagine the havoc wrought by people drunk shitposting: don’t drink and tweet).
Originally a theory postulated by psychologist John Suler, studies have confirmed that it is an actual phenomenon. One study observed “a disconnect between the commentator’s identity and what he says… even what he believes”.
I think that the impact of this phenomenon on how we post on social media is overstated. Consider how well-curated and moderated your Facebook or Twitter feed is, how easy it is to construct a very particular persona, how wary people are of deviating outside an “online brand”. When you add the possibility of anonymity into the mix however, the results can be devastating.
It’s not that cyber-anonymity is necessarily a bad thing, even if, as the famous meme goes, “on the internet nobody knows you’re a duck”. The potential for anonymity cements freedom of speech and, as research conducted in 2012 showed, enhances creativity by removing risk of personal judgement. Anonymity doesn’t just make dispatches from Syrian refugees possible—it’s responsible for your entire “poopoo_pepe_meme” folder.
But when you combine it with forums which foment and perpetuate things like misogyny and bullying behaviour, the worst case scenario is bound to occur, as it has, and does. In 2006, Megan Meier’s parents walked into their 13-year-old daughters’ room to find her in her closet, where she had hanged herself with a belt. Despite desperate attempts to revive her, she was pronounced dead at the scene. Twenty minutes earlier she sent her last message to “Josh”, an anonymous persona on Myspace, one of the many who riddled her inbox incessantly with threats and abuse: “you’re the kind of guy a girl commits suicide over”. “Josh” turned out to be the mother of a former friend; aided by her perceived anonymity, this woman could say things as “Josh” that she could—or would—never say in person.
The same issue crops up again and again, most recently (that I can ascertain) with transgender game developer Rachel Bryk. On ask.fm, an anonymous forum, and 4chan’s video game board /vg/, her cries for help let to a flurry of abuse. “Jumping off a bridge isn’t rocket science,” reads one comment. On 23 April she did, becoming another piece of data in the staggeringly high rates of transgender suicide.
4chan’s /b/ (“random”) board, renowned and proud cesspit of the surface web is 100 per cent comprised of “anonymous” users, and has been since 2012, when “tripfagging” (users who generated a unique code to ensure the posts were discernibly theirs) was discontinued from the board. Such is /b/’s infamy that it draws a larger crowd than just basement-dwellers and Mountain Dew + Doritos enthusiasts—young women and teen women, hormones and sexual confusion palpable in every post, are drawn to post on the website, maybe for attention, maybe for shits and giggles. Often they remove articles of clothing so that 4chan users can get “wins”, after being commanded “tits or gtfo” or ‘“sharpie in pooper nao”. These same 4chan users then doxx (search for information about a person with the intent of publishing it for nefarious ends, or “lulz”) the unsuspecting user and share the resulting pictures with the victim’s family and friends—or use the tamer pictures to blackmail the person into “camming”, or into posting lewder photographs and it’s all, basically, a sea of shit.
Predictably, more than one victim of such a scheme has committed suicide. The most famous example is Amanda Todd, who, as an impressionable 13-year-old, flashed her breasts online on omegle. The picture made its way to /b/, where it was disseminated at a rate of knots, having the especial allure of not just being “win”, but being “cheese pizza” (codified language for child pornography). Following her suicide, there was a thread discussing the incident: “stupid bitch got what she deserved… does she think she can just show her tits and have no consequences?” Look, in the distance! Is that a humane comment? “You guys are fucking stupid and worthless edgelords.” But wait: “if we keep doxxing the girls that give us wins, how are we going to get any more? you’ve just scared off every girl on the planet. fucking newfags”. Oh.
It’s not that cyber-bullying and calling people out on Twitter are strictly analogous—I’m not saying Kony was cyber-bullied because he happened to be the internet’s most hated for one day—but the psychological mechanisms behind both are pretty damn similar. It feels good to be part of an ideological crusade when you’re in the right; it feels good to get validation from your peers. It also often crosses the border from “noble cause” to “idle entertainment” because, shit, it’s entertaining to craft that perfect insult or crushing riposte. It feels good seeing other people decimate someone you disagree with.
This very human foible is easy to exploit. Both Stormfront (a neo-Nazi organization) and JIDF (“Jewish Internet Defense Force”; a kind of arch-Zionist organization dedicated to covering up atrocities in Palestine and eliminating anti-Israeli people in positions of power) are aware of the effect pile-ons can have, and encourage their members to mobilize en masse to “denigrate” their opponents in the hopes it will be persuasive to a non-neo-Nazi or non-Zionist public.
And here’s the thing: humans, as a rule, self-justify. The loathsome trolls on /b/ may have illogical, post-hoc reasoning for their actions, but if you ask them, they’d consider themselves in the moral right—even if this moral right exists outside mainstream or “normie” discourse. Likewise, we consider it a moral right when we pile onto people who, say, make racist comments on Twitter, because it aligns with our conception of what is moral and good—people need to know that racist comments won’t be tolerated, we need to use our positions of power to address the injustices suffered by the less fortunate, et cetera. It’s all very noble and well-meaning, but isn’t it a bit neo-medieval?
Participating in online campaigns, vendettas, “witch-hunts”, is an alluring intoxicant. But does it come at the expense of empathy? If there’s an in-built response in our brains that makes us susceptible to malice, and the online disinhibition compounds it, surely we should take pause and consider whether what we’re doing is right.
It would be easy to just apply logic to a given scenario. Did Walter Palmer deserve the ire he received online? His actions were unquestionably unethical. Lions are endangered and hunting them is a post-colonial act of globalised dominance (no, it’s not analogous to killing a cow; vegetarians and vegans stay in your lane). As the extinction of the Western Black Rhino proved, the novelty of an animal in terms of hunting doesn’t guarantee its continuing existence—on the contrary, it just makes the kill more elusive and more valuable to the psyche of big-game hunters, and in general, species going extinct is a Bad Thing (unless it’s cockroaches in which case good riddance to bad rubbish IMO, don’t let the door hit you on the way out). Arguments that big game hunting are essential to the livelihood of already impoverished African people don’t bear much scrutiny either.
But was the reaction proportionate? In a world where Twitter has about 300 million active users and Facebook just over a billion—all with opinions, psychologies, foibles and, crucially, access to “share” and “retweet” buttons—the potential for “blowing things out of proportion” takes on a gargantuan, err, proportion. The scope of public retribution is scary. Last year when #gamergate was in full swing, Briana Wu and Anita Sarkesian had to sleep on friends’ sofas for fear of anything from prank calls to credible death and rape threats, for having the temerity to call out sexism and misogynistic abuse in the gaming industry (apparently redditors’ brains haven’t developed enough to recognise irony in its purest form).
So, to put it another way: how do we like it when the shoe is on the other foot, when people with a different ideology to our own initiate a pile-on? It’s satisfying to think that certain people deserve harassment and vindicating when they get it. It’s also undeniably savage, and repercussions are rarely productive.
In Pebbles Hooper’s case, she was tried before what was essentially a Kangaroo Court. Her punishment, in a discomfiting conflation of the increasingly eroding private/public divide, was losing her job with the New Zealand Herald, who should be held partially responsible for fomenting her shitty, unconscionable views by giving her a platform to air them in the first place. Whether Pebbles’ apology was genuine is unknowable, but it certainly wasn’t accepted. But whatever. She was doomed to a lifetime of constant pillorying. Jokes! Within 48 hours the heat had died down and we’d moved on to another controversy because social media is nothing if not up-to-date and, consequently, transient in its targeting. There is nothing Pebbles Hooper can do to appease the Twitterstorm in future—she’s been taken care of. The New Zealand Herald still publishes bigoted shit. The world spins on its axis.
Hooper, thanks to a generous trust fund, is presumably still financially solvent, though the same can’t be said for everyone in her predicament. Justine Sacco, who posted the infamous “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding! I’m White” tweet took years to recover from the backlash—financially, emotionally. (Imagine how lauded that tweet would’ve been if Louis CK had wrote it. I’m just saying.) It permeated every aspect of her life. She will, literally, never live it down. Yet AIDS rates in Africa haven’t plummeted. The West still refuses to interact economically and socially with Africa unless it can assume some kind of angelic saviour position. Stigma surrounding the HIV-positive community has, according to one study, only increased since the tweet was sent.
When we call out other people’s heartlessness, we don’t have to become heartless ourselves; human feelings like compassion and empathy are most powerful when offered to those least deserving of it. It’s not just that passive activism has supplanted tangible, constructive action or that it inhibits sober debate and crucial discussions, although both of those things are demonstrable. It’s that ultimately, it reduces us to schoolyard bullies vilifying the individual in lieu of the problem. We still have cause and effect all mixed up. Until we get it right? All we’re going to see are effects.