The web is often compared to the wild West. A vacuum of control and policing creates a culture in which mobs and vigilantes run riot.
In his book, Here Comes Everybody, author Clay Skirky examines the case of the stolen sidekick and the internet vigilantism of Evan Guttman. After his friend’s phone was left in a cab, the victim discovered pictures and emails from the person who found the phone online. After attempts to recover the phone were met with refusal, Evan started a website Stolensidekick.com which quickly gathered an audience and community to help get justice for this event. The community provided information in terms of detective work, legal advice, insider info from the NYPD, and the kind of attention that made this minor event into a global topic. Eventually, the young woman who had possession of the phone was arrested and the phone returned. (NYT Article)
Skirky voices some interesting questions surrounding events such as these.
“Who defines what kind of cause is right?”
In this case an affluent white professional adult was able to prosecute a sixteen-year-old single mother who refused to return lost property. Not a crime against humanity by any stretch of the imagination, yet thousands of individuals joined the cause to restore the phone to it’s owner. No doubt similar events occur every day and the sense of anger for an injustice that many have also experienced fueled the response.
In this case I would say that the group defines the merits of the cause based on the attention they give it. Individuals could unite in a shared sense of disgust at a value they felt had been breached. Similarly, in the case of Dog Poop Girl, Koreans united to deride a young woman who had shown a lack of care towards her fellow commuters and insulting the elderly by her failure to clean up after her dog.
“Do we want a world in which a well-off grown-up can use this kind of leverage to get a tennager arrested, as well as named and shamed on a global platform, for what was a fairly trivial infraction?”
Personally, I don’t think we have much of a choice. That is the world in which we have always lived. Since time immemorial when communities feel that a core value has been broken they have united to shame and correct the perpetrator. Scarlet letters, public shaming, scapegoating; all these have long traditions in society. While not every person who committed a crime would end up in stock in the town center, the ones that were caught served as a warning to others to conform. Typically those caught were not privileged members of the community.
These online campaigns to shame serve similar function today, though the access is broader and the community larger than ever before. While ostensibly justice in the communities of times past was supposed to be blind, that ideal is no more true now than it was then. Privilege will always play a part in justice and the internet is neither the source nor the solution to this problem.
“Why should Evan have been able to browbeat the NYPD into paying attention to this of all lost property?”
The fact that the victim in this case was upper middle class and white no doubt played a role in their ability to conduct the campaign as well as the attention it received. No doubt there are cases in which far more damage was done to the victim, yet those cases did not make headlines or receive such a following.
However, once you start arguing that there are more meritorious cases it becomes impossible to pursue any cause. Why save the whales when there are people starving in the developing world? Why help those in the developing world when their are people starving in our own communities? And so on. It becomes an argument that diminishes the value of any cause. Similarly, why complain of the attention garnered over the privilege in media attention for lost phones, when there is such a terrible history of media representations of lost women based on race?
There is little to no control on how these ad hoc communities form. If a case is presented that draws in an individual based on their values a community of those with similar values will form, no matter how big or small the infraction.
A Counter Example
Recently an online community rose up against an individual who had been targeting them for almost a decade. A man using the screen name David Mabus has been targeting online atheist groups and high profile bloggers since 1993 with hateful, violent speech, and Depeche Mode videos.
While initially his rants were just confusing and crazy, overtime they escalated in tone and number. He wrote spam scripts with which he would flood emails and online communities with his rants and death threats. One of his most frequently targeted bloggers was PZ Myers an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the blog Pharyngula. He recently blogged about what he experienced as a result of David Mabus’s fixation.
“Every morning when I get up and get on the computer, the first thing I do is delete the pile of spam from Dennis Markuze, each of which is usually cross-posted to 50 to 100 other people. Every time I fire up Twitter, the first thing I do is clear the garbage Dennis Markuze has left there; yesterday I blocked and reported spam from over 25 Markuze accounts, amounting to several hundred messages.”
Rutherford Mansfield also blogged about some examples of Mabus’s threats:
“I’ve been getting emails from him for about 3 years or so, ever since I started my website http://whatstheharm.net and James Randi mentioned it in a blog post,” said Tim Farley, whose blog challenges people to think critically. “I have almost 60 screen shots of DIRECT death threats he sent to me. Stuff like “I am going to execute you, fucker… The police will not save you… we’re going to beat the fuck out of you, u lying little sack of shit…. and so on.”
Markuze appears, ironically, to be on some kind of extremist Christian bent, attacking the journalists for their defence of science against creationism or their beliefs in the separation of Church and State. One blogger who prefers to remain anonymous provided the following quote, which was left on a July 2010 article about Galileo: “We have orders to EXTERMINATE you and your entire family if continue to talk about GOD and RELIGION the way *you do* do you got the msg, you stupid little fucker?”
The identity of David Mabus has been known for years now. He is Dennis Markuze of Montreal Canada. Over the years many have contacted the Montreal Police, the RCMP, and the city officials about the actions of Markuze. Canada has a law criminalizing death threats on the internet. However, for years nothing was done as these threats were considered of no consequence. Internet communities had to grow accustomed to ignoring him and his threats as there seemed to be no recourse. Many mocked him for his crazy ramblings and tried to dismiss him. Markuze then began attending conventions and conferences getting in physical proximity to those whose heads he had threatened to cut off and at whose expense he enjoyed making references to “crystal night.” Within the community many feared that this man was similar to Anders Behring Breivik, the mass murderer responsible for the Oslo shootings this summer, who began by making threats online that escalated into violence.
Yet these communities had little ability to protect themselves. Until Kyle VanderBeek, a San Francisco-based engineer received threats via his twitter account and decided to do something. VanderBeek works with Change.org, and he set up a petition on that website. Every signature resulted in an email sent to the Montreal Police public relation’s address. After the petition has received over 3,000 signatures the Twitter account of Montreal PD tweeted that they were looking into the case and posted several requests to stop. Then local media began to pay attention.
Subsequently, Markuze was arrested and charges are still pending as he receives mental evaluation.
As a counter example to the case of the Stolen Sidekick, here is a small marginalized online community that was targeted by a single individual. It took years of abuse before they were finally able to be heard and stop the abusive threats of an online terrorist who had targeted them as a group. Legislation that criminalizes online death threats should act to protect individuals, however, it is still difficult for an entire community of victims to find justice if they are small and on the margins of society. So in answer to Shirky’s above question, sometimes the Police need to be brow beaten for justice to be served.