Social Media is the New Lynch Mob

I was away, immersed in ConferenceLand all last week, so, while I spent a lot of time pushing information out (via Twitter, mostly), I didn’t spend a lot of time absorbing what was happening on Social Media.

And a lot happened. Specifically, a man killed a lion in Africa. Walter Palmer, a US Dentist, shot and killed a lion named “Cecil” last week. Social media exploded. Blew up. People called for him to be extradited back to Africa and tried, people called for him to have his legs cut off and thrown to the lions. His dental practice is besieged with protesters, and unable to open.

Now, let me be really, REALLY clear. I am not a hunter. I have trouble killing a spider. Lions are beautiful, majestic animals, and this guy killed one by bribing a bunch of people. I’m not down with that. But this blog post is not about whether or not what Palmer did was right or wrong. It’s about looking at what social media has become: a mob of people with flaming torches.

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I love social media. I love it because it gives us, the little guys, power. If I had a problem with a business in the past, I had little recourse. I could maybe try to call a customer service line, or send a letter. But now, with Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Trip Advisor, my voice is suddenly very, very loud. And that’s a heady feeling.

I love social media because it has been a great democratizer. But it sometimes goes too far. There are no real consequences to you talking smack about stuff on your Facebook page. But when a million people jump on that bandwagon and start to talk smack… that snowball effect can have some pretty powerful consequences.

In my classes, I often use the example (of what not to do) of Justine Sacco. This gal was in PR and should probably have known better, but to her credit, she had a twitter feed that she was trying to fill with irony (hint: irony doesn’t translate well on Twitter). She was flying to Africa, and tweeted, “going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS, just kidding, I’m white.”  By the time her plane landed, her life was over. Her tweet was trending #1 worldwide, and she had been fired. The year that followed was a very difficult one for her. By the way, Sacco had less than 200 twitter followers at the time.

The question I’m asking here, is not, “did they do something stupid?” but “does the punishment fit the crime?” We have no idea how our small actions add up to immense consequences for those that the social shaming is aimed at.

Author Jon Ronson has written a very interesting book on the topic: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, where he cites dozens of examples of this social media lynch mob mentality.

Here’s what frightens me the most: what if this lynch mob mentality kicked into gear when you really hadn’t done anything wrong? What happened to “innocent until proven guilty?” We are playing with people’s lives, here.

I’ll leave the last word to my friend Sean, who is a lot smarter about this stuff than I am:

To me, it is just the latest example of the erosion of the rule of law and a shift towards a lynch-mob form of justice through the use of social media. Without any presumption of innocence until proven guilty, without a fair trial, without a full review of the evidence or knowledge of all the facts, without any opportunity to defend one’s self, the court of public opinion has taken it upon itself, once again, to pronounce judgment and impose a sentence.

Not only do I find it reprehensible that more and more people are deemed guilty in a manner that is contrary to the principles of justice or fairness, the punishments imposed by knee-jerk popular opinion are often disproportionate to the crime (if there even was a crime).

It also bothers me if it is a matter of morality rather than law. Just because the majority might deem something to be right or wrong does not make it right or wrong. I also question the morality of responding to an act that may be perceived to be immoral through the use of vengeance, extreme ostracism, or some other draconian or disproportionate form of punishment.

But I will leave the very last, last word to Mr. Berkeley Breathed, who has delighted the world (including me) this past month by starting to write Bloom County strips again.

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Stay safe out there, friends. Be kind. Use your social media powers for good.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

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