At Vox, Max Fisher did a number on the mob. No, not the mob that most people hate, but the other mob, the one born of righteous anger, and the occasional fun of destroying someone, on the internet.
It was putatively about the mob that went after Cecil the Lion killer Walter Palmer, but as the post fleshes out, it becomes clear that Palmer was just the hook.
This should look familiar: It is the same set of tactics that has been used in online harassment campaigns such as the “Gamergate” movement that targeted women in technology, or the seemingly endless online harassment conducted against female journalists. It is a growing trend of internet mob justice, one that often bleeds into real-world harassment with real-world consequences.
We as a society deemed campaigns such as Gamergate unacceptable and rejected their proponents as harassers who crossed the line.
I don’t know what “we as a society” Fisher thinks he’s entitled to speak for, but he’s as much of a flaming hypocrite as Jon Ronson, whom he naturally quotes deeper in. Fisher laments:
Jon Ronson, in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, explored how this culture of mob justice emerged out of more innocuous practices of mocking people who’d said or written something dumb, and how it became more about serving the mob than about serving justice:
Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.
What’s striking about Fisher’s, not to mention Ronson’s, perspective is that this evil mob justice of which they complain is evil not because it’s a mob, not because of its blind wrath, but because its direction cannot be controlled for what they deem to be worthy causes.
Gamergate is the dead giveaway. It’s evil because they picked a side and it’s not the side of Gamergate.
That doesn’t mean that their grievance against the mob is completely lacking in merit. The phenomenon of the mob on the web happens, and it can reflect a level of hatred and ignorance that should scare the crap out of anyone.
But is it the democratization of “internet justice” or some manufactured game played by mob Rasputins at 4chan and Reddit who have mastered the art of whipping up their evil minions to attack any poor schmuck in their sights?
It is built into the very practice, because the mob is not about justice in the abstract sense of furthering society’s collective good. Rather, it is about pursuing vendettas — for example, Gamergate’s fury at the growing role of women in technology, or Reddit’s open hatred of people who are overweight — or about simply indulging the mob’s desire for blood.
That puts all of us in danger. The mob is free to decide on its own what does and does not constitute a crime — being a woman who works in technology or journalism, for example, or having the wrong religion —and any one of us could someday be implicated in such an “offense.”
So people aren’t allowed to hold beliefs that guys like Fisher find wrong-minded? And when like-minded people find each other and decide to talk about it, act upon it, they’re called a mob. That wouldn’t be true of people who called for Dylann Roof to be prosecuted as a terrorist, though. Or for the removal of the Confederate Flag. After all, this wasn’t the work of the mob, but Justice. And when it’s Justice, it’s completely different, because it’s right.
This isn’t to say that the mob phenomenon isn’t real or doesn’t happen. It obviously does. But is it a mob when one person voices an opinion? What if it’s ten or a hundred, who share that opinion? Which one isn’t allowed to hold that same opinion? Which voice turns it from an opinion to a mob?
Now, that isn’t to say that turning opinion into physical conduct doesn’t cross a different line. To believe that something is wrong is very different from vigilantism, the townfolk storming the dental office with pitchforks and torches. But Fisher neglects to draw the distinction between opinion and action, and it’s a glaring omission.
But then, it’s hard to ferret out the hard issue of the internet mob when Fisher does exactly what he complains of, identifying the evil mob as those he opposes, like Gamergate, without calling out the exact same conduct by the mob with whom he agrees.
This gets to one of the root problems with mob justice: It is not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob and its thirst for vengeance. Sometimes that leads the mob to target people who perhaps legitimately deserve punishment, but typically it does not. And there is no reason to expect it to. That’s not what mobs are about.
That goes for all “mobs,” whether they’re for or against whatever cause suits your politics. Yeah, these mobs are a problem. No, not just the ones you don’t like. But either way, the mob remains the expression of opinion, en masse perhaps, but comprised of individuals, each of whom is just as entitled to express it as Max Fisher. If we silence one, then we have to silence all. Is that the point?