Violent Mobs on Facebook

A woman drops a cat into a trash bin. It’s caught on video. That video is posted on YouTube and Facebook. Within a day, intrepid internet users have identified the woman. The next day, she is under police protection.

This particular event is unfolding in Britain. Here’s an over the top article to explain the situation. The video drew hits because of the shocking nature of the act, but it’s the aftermath that should make us pay attention.

Mary Bale, the perpetrator, called for police protection after reading the many threats of violence directed towards her on Facebook. The comments are understandable. Animal cruelty offends many people and the communal nature of Facebook makes it a perfect venue in which to vent. The question is whether all that social rage would enable a violent act. We do know that participants were able to identify Mary within a 24 hour period. Armed with that information would someone try to “spray her with BBQ sauce and throw her into a den of lions at the zoo” as one poster suggested? Let's hope not.

Many people believe Mary Bale deserves shame for what she did. Perhaps she does. I don’t think she deserves fear. It’s very frightening to have a mob chasing you. And mobs beg for vigilantism, even if the mob in question is digital. Look at China, where they've been dealing with online vigilantism for years. They even have a word for hunting down wrong doers through the internet, renrou sousuo, it translates to human flesh search engine.

For example, in April after a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States showed her support for pro-Tibet independence demonstrations, Chinese bloggers started a human flesh search with pictures of her at the demonstration to find out who she was. In the end, not only her name, age, and which part of China she came from was publicized, but also the names of her parents and where they lived. -Asia Times Online

This is what bothers me. I’m a strong supporter of freedom of speech and association. I’m also very enamoured with informational transparency as enabled by modern communication systems. I am not a fan of mobs. Mary Bale’s “crime” was a physical act. The Duke student’s crime was an opinion. In both cases, individuals that had no direct connection with the accused took the time to dig up personal information and pass it on to some very angry people. What sort of actions are you calling for by doing that sort of legwork? One last example, the hunting of an adulterer.

Those in Beijing, please share with others the scandal of these two,” a Netizen wrote. “Make it impossible for them to stay in this city.” The search crossed over to other Web sites, then to the mainstream media — so far a crucial multiplier in every major human-flesh search — and Wang Fei became one of China’s most infamous and reviled husbands. Most of Wang’s private information was revealed: cellphone number, student ID, work contacts, even his brother’s license-plate number. One site posted an interactive map charting the locations of everything from Wang’s house to his mistress’s family’s laundry business. “Pay attention when you walk on the street,” wrote Hypocritical Human. “If you ever meet these two, tear their skin off.” -China's Cyberposse, NYT

I’m a huge fan of empowering the individual but oftentimes technology serves to amplify the darkest parts of our nature. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t believe the answer is wishful thinking that people can learn to obey the golden rule. I certainly don’t want to ban or police chat rooms. Can we code for civility? I’m not sure. I think we better find out soon.