When most of the blawgosphere was sued by Joseph Rakofsky, one prong of his reply was an accusation of “internet mobbing.” There is, of course, no such cause of action or defense, but Norm Pattis invented it for Rakofsky. The idea was that each of the blawgers who wrote about Rakofsky, who shredded him for what he did, did not do so as a dozen independent free agents who saw the same conduct and were individually outraged by it, but as a mob, piling on to be part of the mob. It may have been true for some, but crafting a name didn’t make it a wrong.
In a magnificent post (which is my way of telling everyone that you really need to read the entire post because it’s that good) at Arc Digital, Kat Rosenfield faces the flash mob of the moment.
The shrill voice, the right-in-your-face racism, the kneejerk weaponization of the 911 call, the spectacle of that hapless dog twisting and wriggling with the effort to keep all four paws on the ground: this video might as well have been engineered in a lab to travel worldwide on a tsunami of outrage, one that even a cautious person could join in relative confidence. Even with additional context (in this case, a Facebook post from the videographer explains, sort of, why the woman is already freaked out and in tears when the video cuts in ) this was clearly no Covington repeat. We knew what we saw. We knew it was bad.
Yes, Ramble Karen is back, but she’s no longer just the hysterical woman calling in the reinforements. While I may have studiously avoided using her name, others made a different choice.
And very shortly, we also knew Karen’s full name, address, email address, phone number, place of employment, Instagram handle, and the name of the rescue where she got that poor cocker spaniel — the better to get busy teaching her that bad acts (or at least, the ones caught on video at a moment when people are particularly bored, scared, and hungry for a sense of control amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic) have consequences.
A mere day later, she’s been tried, convicted and sentenced. She’s out of a job. The dog is gone. Her name will hereinafter be forever part of the Pantheon of Karens. Some will point out that she didn’t go to prison, so it’s no big deal. All that happened was she suffered the consequences for what she did, or to be more precise, for what she did that people were able to observe.
What’s harder is pinpointing exactly how much condemnation is merited, and from whom. “Actions have consequences” is the clarion call in moments like this, and this case more than most demonstrates its necessity; If not for the attention of the internet, Amy would have never received any comeuppance at all for her indecency, which surely is just as bad as the inevitable over-correction.
A million people saw it and were outraged. Most let the internets know how much they hated her to show that they were on the side of virtue. Some took it a few steps further.
And yet, there must be a point at which the correction does become “over-.” Was it when the police acknowledged the incident? When Amy deleted her social media accounts? When her employer announced that she’d been suspended? When the cocker spaniel rescue organization announced that it’d taken back her dog? If we allow that it was correct for one person to alert the rescue to the video, do we draw a line at five people? Fifty? Does it matter that at least some of these people were less concerned for the dog’s well-being, and more concerned with their own fleeting need for power and control?
And with those few words, “their own fleeting need for power and control,” Kat said it out loud.
Amy wasn’t taken down by some powerful person with great might who took offense at her conduct. She was taken down by a million gnats with no power individually, but with the might of the mob. The axiom is that there is strength in numbers, and when something goes viral on social media, the numbers become overpowering. But it’s not strength. It’s naked power, mindless and limitless, the ability to flex one’s muscle and vent one’s need for power to destroy the enemies of the mob.
This is like the philosophical question, if you could commit a crime and be assured of getting away with it, would you? The individuals who comprise the mob bask in their personal virtue; they did this because they believe they are standing up for equity, fighting the privilege, saving the oppressed from the evil Karen and her accomplices, the killer cops. Some will claim they joined the mob only to condemn the conduct, not to exact punishment. It’s not their fault that some others took things too far, calling her job, getting her fired, bombing her home and, oh wait. I’m getting ahead of things.
And if you seem to be enjoying it a little too much, well, aren’t you owed a little pleasure in exchange for your fulfillment of the new social contract? If we acknowledge a moral obligation to show up and condemn Amy’s actions, maybe we can’t blame people for sticking around, grabbing a beverage, and cheering on her comeuppance like it’s a spectator sport.
There are few things the masses like better than to root for their team, to see their team crush the other team. One of those few things is to actually get onto the field, into the game, if only to throw a rotten tomato at Tom Brady. In the anonymity of the mob, surrounded by like minded gnats, it’s not as if anyone will be held responsible for that tomato.
Whether Amy deserved the comeuppance she received is the small mind question. Why people join the mob knowing it will give them, otherwise powerless and insignificant, sufficient power to destroy is a bigger question. Internet mobbing isn’t a cause of action or an affirmative defense, but is the way gnats get to participate in destroying people without responsibility or limits. It doesn’t really matter whether Amy deserved it anymore as it’s been done.
Were you part of the mighty mob that destroyed? Do you feel the rush of your power? Wrapped in the warm comfort of mob anonymity, no one but you will know what you did to destroy a person, and if there are any pangs of guilt, you can take comfort in knowing that you were part of the mob of virtue. The mob always believes it serves virtue, even as it destroys.