The Injustice of Online Justice

The power of the Internet is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the speed with which the public metes out (in)justice.

In July 2015 Walter Palmer, an American dentist, shot a male Southwest African lion in Zimbabwe. The lion was a resident of Hwange National Park, and his pride had been observed by an Oxford-run research project since 1999. He was 13 years old, and he was called Cecil. With tourists he was the most popular lion in the park, his black-fringed mane familiar to many who saw him approach their vehicle.

When news of Cecil’s killing emerged it was greeted with widespread outrage, first online and later in more traditional media. Within hours it was among the most prevalent news topics. It trended number one on Twitter and was the subject of numerous newspaper, media and blog reports, most of which condemned Palmer and his act. Palmer returned to the United States, where he issued a statement saying that he believed he had acted legally, and calling big game hunting “an activity I love.”

Although officials in Zimbabwe would later confirm that no laws had been broken, people online were incensed. How could the killer of a protected animal, especially one that engendered such affection, go unpunished?

Whatever the morality of the actual act (and surely it is a shame for a creature to be hunted and killed for a man’s enjoyment), what is in many ways more complex and intriguing is how the online public turned on Palmer, and how the hunter turned hunted.

People Power

Journalist and author Jon Ronson examines this subject in his best-selling book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson speaks as one of “the mob,” as he calls it: someone who in earlier days of Twitter leapt to shame the wrongdoings of others (“shamings to be proud of,” he still attests), in the hope that shame would further the “democratization of justice,” as he puts it.

One of his case studies is Justine Sacco, an American public relations officer. On her way to South Africa in December 2013, Sacco posted an ill-advised joke linking race and AIDS. When she next checked her phone following an 11-hour flight, her name was the most mentioned on Twitter. Using the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, users condemned her quip (many calling for her to lose her job) while tracking her flight’s progress, anticipating her discovery of the controversy she had initiated. Someone in Cape Town airport posted a photo of her wearing sunglasses, allegedly “as a disguise.” Her employers, alerted to the tweet and furor, sacked her. A quick Google search of her name (as happened more than 1.2 million times in the following 11 days, according to Ronson), shows that her imprudent moment has come to define her.

Immediately following Justine Sacco’s ill-advised tweet to her 170 Twitter followers, it went viral. A ready mob of online bullies and trolls quickly condemned her as a heartless bigot. Had they sought some context before rushing to judgment, they would have learned that the remark was meant as satire—in author Jon Ronson’s words, “a badly worded joke mocking privilege . . . [and] racism.”

Walter Palmer received similar levels of attention. The location of his dental practice was discovered and posted online, attracting protesters and compelling him to close down for several weeks. He made a public apology, which critics dissected and shrugged at. Everything was reported and enshrined in numerous articles, blogs and tweets.

Some commentators, including Ronson, have likened such phenomena to public punishments of the past, which were part of justice systems for centuries. Public executions, pillories, lashings, branding and the stocks were attempts to attain justice through shame.

The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in [the pillory]. There can be no outrage . . . more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

In many cases the shame was more psychological than physical; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, for example, depicts Hester Prynne who, having been convicted of adultery, was forced by law to wear a large scarlet A stitched to her clothing whenever she appeared in public. The letter, a sort of textile brand, was designed to humiliate her and provide a warning to others.

Historic public punishments, which were largely (though not entirely) phased out in the 19th century, seem to be a model for online justice. But today’s version is different—and perhaps more dangerous. As social scientist Jennifer Jacquet writes, “the speed at which information can travel, the frequency of anonymous shaming, the size of the audience it can reach, and the permanence of the information separate digital shaming from shaming of the past” (Is Shame Necessary?). But the most notable aspect of the shaming of today may be in the name: it’s worth asking, where is the justice?

Righteous” Indignation

Palmer and Sacco are high-profile but not rare cases. In a feature titled “The Year of Outrage,” Slate magazine listed for every day of 2014 at least one event that received Internet ire. For some days, it was spoiled for choice; and the frequency has hardly diminished since.

This is no surprise, because the potency of the digital crowd is undeniable. Ronson writes, “When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice.” At the time, Ronson saw it as “citizen justice prevail[ing] in a dramatic and righteous way.”

As with Sacco’s joke, the offenses that online shamers target are rarely crimes in the traditional sense. They are often not prosecutable by law. This is part of its raison d’être: online shaming is a mode of enacting justice in areas that the law can’t or won’t touch. Petty, inconsequential or incompetent misdeeds—even perceived misdeeds—are mocked by online crowds; serious crime is largely left to the courts. What remains is open to people on the Internet in a way that has never before been possible.

The workings of online shaming seem appealing at first. It’s a moral tool, used to gain “justice” in a “righteous way” for a specific subset of offenses. But a number of observers, including Ronson, have expressed doubts about the results it produces, and it’s worth asking whether it is actually an effective tool for justice at all.

Rushing to Judgment

The Internet is a fast place. It’s easy to read, easy to skim, and easy to speak. Everything happens quickly. One hundred and eighty thousand tweets were posted in the time it took to type this sentence. That speed puts pressure on people looking to enact civilian justice. It leaves limited time for judgment or careful thought. In episodes of online shaming there is little evidence of people being quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, as the apostle James advised in the first century (James 1:19). Justine Sacco fell prey to this, and in a way so did her accusers.

It’s not as if those who endeavor to shame are infallible, after all. In 2014 a photo emerged of director Steven Spielberg kneeling and smiling in front of a motorized model of a triceratops used in his film Jurassic Park. Some hastily interpreted this as the pose of a glorying animal hunter; a mini-furor erupted, despite the fact that triceratops have been extinct for millions of years. The outrage, though on a smaller scale, was similar to that in Sacco’s and Palmer’s cases.

The Internet does not encourage the conditions necessary for thoughtful judgment, which is regrettable given the consequences for the accused. Other elements of basic justice seem to be missing too. The Bible asks that an alleged crime be prosecutable by the testimony of witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1), and indeed that principle is fundamental to many modern justice systems. The online world makes this barely possible. There is little time to check facts, analyze testimony or consider context. The haste is so severe that in some cases it’s not clear that judgment has been made at all, unless it occurs later. Like the infamous court case in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the sentence sometimes appears to come before the verdict.

“‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

That speed also creates an illusion that the Internet is essentially impermanent. It can’t be touched; it can’t be held in one’s hand. Something is typed, and then it appears—in a “cloud” amidst a mass of other intangible data. It barely exists in one’s mind before it exists online. It all feels more distant than face-to-face interaction.

As a result, people online feel freer to say what comes to mind. This is known as the “online disinhibition effect.” The ability to act anonymously is a large contributor to this. A nameless accuser can act without responsibility because there is slim possibility of recourse. That lack of responsibility means people act with less consideration, more often and more hastily, and with less restraint. As New York Times reporter John Markoff told Jacquet, he came to realize that “the online world was full of trolls and other nastiness and that people behaved online in ways they would never behave in face-to-face encounters.” Online shaming feels less damning and less concrete than public punishment might have felt to the accusers of Hester Prynne.

Ronson recalls a journalist at Gawker magazine, who helped shame Justine Sacco, telling him in an e-mail that “he had a feeling she’d be ‘fine eventually, if not already. . . . Everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.’” This is far from the truth. Sacco lost not only what she considered her “dream job” but also her reputation. She told Ronson she had a “fear that if I were in a car accident tomorrow and lost my memory and came back and googled myself, that would be my new reality.” Sacco did eventually land a new job, but a quick Google search on her name is all it takes to confirm that her fears aren’t without foundation.

People don’t invest as much time and thought in what they say online because it doesn’t seem as impactful—perhaps because it doesn’t feel as personal—as more traditional gossip-mongering and bullying. But this couldn’t be less true. As Jacquet says, “Unlike the gossip of the past, which was spoken or printed, Internet gossip is fast, far-reaching, set in digital stone, and often searchable.” People may forget, but the Internet does not; and the psychological damage on the target may be greater still.

Public shaming is also about power. Ronson writes, “On Twitter we make our own decisions about who deserves obliteration. We form our own consensus, and we aren’t being influenced by the criminal justice system or the media. This makes us formidable.” Online forums offer users the opportunity to make an impact; in shaming, they assume the role of judge or of presiding ruler. Michel Foucault, historian of ideas and author of the seminal Discipline and Punish, wrote that the exercise of punishment is in part motivated by a desire to assert and demonstrate the sovereign’s power. In the past, punishment was the right of the sovereign or judge; in the online world, the “sovereign” is each online user.

Crime and Punishment

The dynamics between offender and shamer are especially interesting. In his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, American psychiatrist James Gilligan argues that punishment is in itself an act of violence, a way of balancing the original offense. “What is conventionally called ‘crime’ is the kind of violence that the legal system calls illegal, and ‘punishment’ is the kind that it calls legal. But the motives and the goals that underlie both are identical.” It harks back to the idea of “an eye for an eye” found in the Torah.

In a traditional justice system, the judge’s punishments—whether or not they are truly just and fitting—are legitimized by position and the set parameters of law. In the online world, though, there is no position, and there is scant law. Who knows what an ill-judged joke, or the killing of an exotic animal, deserves? There is little in the way of guidance or restraint. But the problem is greater because, as Foucault noted, the judge has an internal need to remove, or better still preclude, the guilt of giving punishment (that is, the guilt of enacting violence on the perpetrator); the punishing power “should remain innocent of the penalty that it inflicts.” As self-appointed adjudicators, without the validation of official standing, online judges need even greater justification.

All this suggests an explanation for why online controversies reach such hysterical levels. In the case of pre-Internet public shamings, Foucault wrote that the crime’s level of atrocity—simply put, its perceived scandal and/or heinousness—was the tool used to justify punishment. It was an example of balancing the two acts of violence: crime and punishment. If the punishment happened to become overly zealous, then the measure of atrocity might be enhanced and exaggerated sufficiently to justify it. The same might be said of online shaming: the hysteria of the online crowd, which often gets out of hand, amplifies the perceived wrongness (the atrocity, to use Foucault’s term) of the crime to such a pitch that it justifies the mob punishment, even to the extent of lost livelihood, reputation, relationships and future prospects of the perceived perpetrator. Justine Sacco’s ill-conceived quip came to represent, in the Internet’s eyes, centuries of racism, white privilege, and the travails of an entire continent; in this light, the loss of a job seems a small price.

The phrase ‘misuse of privilege’ was becoming a free pass to tear apart pretty much anybody we chose to.”

Jon Ronson, “How the Online Hate Mob Set Its Sights on Me,” The Guardian, December 20, 2015

Within this psychological framework the online crowds have minimal cause for remorse. In any case, as the Internet moves so quickly (the claim that everyone will one day experience 15 minutes of fame now seems generous), there is little time for the punisher to feel guilt at all.

This process produces punishments that seem, in cold light, to far outweigh the original offense. As Jacquet writes, “shaming by the online crowd involves the problem of proportionality: minor offenses caught on film and widely distributed can elicit greater punishment than major offenses that go unrecorded, resulting in an inherent and probably unavoidable unfairness.”

It is difficult to redress this unfairness, because power in this context runs entirely one way. Mike Daisey, a monologuist caught fabricating information that aired on This American Life, told Ronson that online shamers “don’t want an apology.” There’s little appetite for those two tenets of lasting relationships: forgiveness and reconciliation. “For someone to make an apology someone has to be listening,” Daisey said. “They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. . . . There’s a power exchange that happens.” But online that often doesn’t occur; public apologies tend to be analyzed and summarily rejected by shamers.

It is possible that the problem lies in shaming’s very process. A punishment ought to fit the crime; so an apology’s sincerity is often measured by balancing it against the original offense. The analysis primarily involves returning to the original “atrocity”—its perceived level of wickedness—and judging the perpetrator’s sincerity by it. But the perpetrator rarely has a chance, because the atrocity (in order to assuage the shamer’s guilt) has been exaggerated to unrealistic and hard-to-forgive levels.

Eternal Principles

There is something unmoored and ill-designed about all this. The judges—and let’s be clear, they could be you, me or anyone—are multitudinous. Online we act impulsively and emotively; we are subject to the effects of the crowd as documented by writers and sociologists from Nathanael West to Clay Shirky. What is singularly lacking in all this is a rule of law. The structure or process by which online justice is enacted is hazy at best, if it can be said to exist at all.

This shouldn’t matter, because the principles that make for healthy relationships, even on the Internet, have not changed. Just because we can’t see our offender doesn’t mean we should be less patient or forgiving.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ outlined a process by which to resolve offenses. The first step is to approach the perpetrator privately to discuss the matter and attempt to work it out. If he or she won’t listen, Jesus recommended approaching again, this time with witnesses. If this doesn’t work, the final step is to go to the presiding authority (Matthew 18:16–17). Nowhere does it advise broadcasting the issue, writing open letters, or loudly calling for the offending parties to lose their jobs.

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

Matthew 18:15, New American Standard Bible

The principles Christ outlined still work, even in an online context. He nowhere advocated permanent and public shaming, and no wonder. Gilligan, drawing on his extensive experience with some of the world’s most heinous criminals, contends that “shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, whether toward others or toward the self.”

Perhaps, though, we should not be surprised by the spread of such an unanchored system of justice. In that same Gospel Christ prophesied that the rule of law would eventually fall away, and that as a consequence relationships would fail: “Because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). The world of online shaming certainly feels a cold one.

The Internet is still fledgling, and it may yet establish a set of rules by which a form of tenable justice may be found. Within a context, however, that elevates the extreme (the most followed, the most clicked), it is difficult to imagine that it will be a prudent one. It is therefore reassuring to read other prophetic statements from the Bible promising that even the cold world described by Matthew will ultimately come to an end in deference to a society based on kinder and more fulfilling laws. In that future society the human “heart of stone” will have been replaced with “a new heart” and “a new spirit” (Ezekiel 36:26). As the apostle John wrote in Revelation 21:4, the day is coming when offenses will be nullified, in a society where there shall not be “mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away.”