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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

Thy Pound of Flesh – Public Shaming, Moral Codes and Other Dangers of Cyber Vigilantes

This post explores some of my thoughts around concepts of Digital Culture.  You can find the other related entries HERE. 

In my last post on cyber-vigilantism , I wrote about the three elements needed for such acts to take place:

  • The violation of a social code
  • The lack of traditional accountability
  • The need for tangible consequences.

In this post, I’d like to dig a little deeper and take a look at three implications Cyber-Vigilante behaviour and it’s impact on our digital culture.

1. The People Have Spoken – Too Soon

Once a social code has been broken and an outcry has been made there is always a huge rush to try to track down the suspect. In China, when individuals collectively work online to unmask an individual it’s called the “human flesh search engine,” and it moves crazy fast, often within a few hours or days. This speed sometimes comes with a cost: accuracy.

Often, when the event in question is unfolding at breakneck speed, mistakes are made in the rush to identify the guilty party. The most notable example took place in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, when Reddit users erroneously named Sunil Tripathi, a missing student, as a suspect in the attacks. In the chaos of a breaking-news event, his name was picked up by online sources and eventually, even the mainstream media. By the time the Police unequivocally absolved Tripathi from any involvement in the case, his family had already received death threats and hateful messages.

It turned out that Tripathi had committed suicide prior to the attacks, and sadly, his body was recovered from a river about a month later. By then, the damage to the Tripathi reputation had already been done, adding unncessary suffering to a family in mourning. There are several other cases of people who are falsely identified by a mob intent on delivering justice, many with tangible consequences for the poor individuals involved.

It is an interesting clash between our trusting assumptions that reported news has been appropriately vetted and the speed at which information about developing events is available to the public. That last part has two implications: One, the information received by the public from the media isn’t always accurate, and two, sometimes the public bypasses the news completely and conducts their own investigation. 


2. Controversial Social & Moral Codes

At first glance, having cyber vigilantes hunt down child molesters, drug dealers and animal abusers doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, I share the collective satisfaction experienced by many other web users when such an offender has been caught and punished. But the problematic nature of this unchecked vengeance becomes more apparent when the social codes being enforced are of a moral nature instead of a gap in the law.

Take the 2010 of Jesse Slaughter, an 11 year old girl who experienced the wrath of the Internet first-hand.  It all began when Slaughter, an active Tumblr user uploaded a video to YouTube to address her haters. (Have I mentioned how delighted I am that none of these platforms were available to me when I was 11? I don’t know how kids today cope.) In the video, Slaughter is confrontational and aggressive saying things like “If you can’t stop hating, you know what? I’ll pop a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy.” The video found it’s way onto /b/, a free-for all message board and regular hangout for internet pranksters, jokesters and trolls, who responded by revealing Slaughter’s real name and address and issued a call for their members to harass her. She was the victim of endless prank calls, and hateful messages including demands that she kill herself. Unfortunately, her father tried to intervene by filming his own response video which only amplified the momentum of the movement and resulted in the creation of several memes which brought more attention to the drama. Slaughter was placed in protective custody due to the numerous death threats that she received.


Jesse Slaughter exercised her freedom of speech to upload some questionable content on the Internet. She didn’t break any laws and yet was the victim of the wrath of a cyber-mob because she violated an unspoken code by issuing a threat to her haters, which attracted the attention of another subculture who revel in responding to such challenges. She violated an obscure social code that she probably wasn’t even aware of. Also, regardless of what she said or didn’t say, I’ll reiterate this point for the millionth time: she was 11.

More recently, issues like the harassment of feminist blogger and media commentator Anita Sarkeesian in 2012 have shown the troubling, dark side of punishment for behaviours that aren’t a crime. Sarkeesian’s offence was creating an online video series discussing the most widely used female tropes that exist in video games.


Apparently, daring to raise awareness of some of the misogynistic elements that exists in gamer culture (and by the way: a lot of other cultures) was a violation of a social code that justified a campaign targeting Sarkeesian with hate mail, death threats and hacking attempts on her social network. She received bomb threats and the harassment escalated to the point where she was forced to leave her home. Once again, Sarkeesian’s views might have offended some people, but she did not commit any crime, was not spreading hate, did not do anything that would justify her life being threatened.

It’s fascinating to see that for many people the lack of traditionally accountability (normally used within the context of a legal response) is being interpreted as a violation of a moral or social code. And because neither woman committed an actual crime, a subset of the population felt that they both needed to be “punished” through public shaming and other online vigilante behaviours. It’s one thing when a group of citizens take action against an illegal threat – their actions might be questionable but at least rational in some sense. It’s another thing completely for people to use the web to launch private vendettas against those they simply don’t agree with.


3. The Normalization of Public Shaming in our Daily Lives

The most common aspect of cyber-vigilantism is public shaming, and I believe that through repeated exposure, this behaviour is becoming normalized in our digital culture. Shaming itself is a behaviour that has been embedded is practically in every culture since Adam and Eve were shamed into wearing clothes. Not all shaming is bad, often shaming is used as a social mechanism to deter unwanted behaviour (This 2006 BBC article recalls how a Sudanese tribe  punished a man who was caught copulating with a goat by forcing him to marry the animal in a public ceremony.)

What I find interesting is the unpredictability and widespread reach that digital platforms add into the mix.

More and more frequently I have been spotting the emergence of sites that want to publicly shame people, even if their real identities are not revealed. This is the more benign end of the spectrum, but one that is becoming more common nonetheless.

  • Passenger Shaming is an Instagram account where airline employees and passengers shame people who act inappropriately while traveling.
  • Men Taking Up 2 Much Space on the Train is a tumblr blog that shames men on public transit for taking up too much space. This is now also known as “manspreading”
  • Pet Shaming is a site where owners upload photos of their pet along with confessions of shameful behaviour. (This one is pretty funny)
  • Kid Shaming is a similar behaviour except instead of pets, people upload pictures of their own children. Personally, I find this creepy and unfunny.


This is an ongoing area of research for me, so I’ll definitely be exploring some of these themes in  more depth in the near future.






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