There was once a lion named Cecil who lived in Africa. Cecil was no ordinary Apex Predator. He was part of a science experiment in conservation and tracking from Oxford University. He was also a very photogenic Lion and allegedly had as friendly a demeanor as Apex Predators can have. He lived with his cubs in a protected park in Zimbabwe.
Cecil was no match for a dentist and hunting enthusiast from Minnesota named Walter Palmer. Walter Palmer was no match for the rage of the Internet.
This story is the proverbial straw that broke the Camel’s back for Max Fisher who correctly but potentially melodramatically and Voxily declared that Internet Mob Justice is out of control. The Atlantic chimed in with an essay called “My Outrage is Better Than Your Outage.” They helpfully pointed out that the response to any outrage is always superiority outrage. A firm tut tutting that there are bigger fish to fry in the world. This can be a scream of WTF Americans care much more about an animal than human poverty, racism, oppression. Or it can be trolling Cecil-lovers (or Palmer-haters) with a story about how everyday Zimbabweans did not know about Cecil.
All of this raises the question about what causes the Internet to be the ID going into overdrive and if there is anything that can be done to calm it down.
My guess is that mob justice is often a resort when people feel that something should be punished even if it is technically not illegal or if they feel the legal punishment does not match the severity of the alleged crime committed.
Walter Palmer has the unfortunate luck of being a kind of cartoon villain coming to life. He is wealthy enough to pay 50,000 dollars for an experience to hunt lions in Africa when most people would probably be unable to come up with 50,000 dollars upon the threat of death. The Atlantic reveals that he has a history of alleged sexual harassment claims against him so he is a bit of a creeper. He also previously plead guilty for lying to federal wildlife officials for killing a black bear. In other words, he fails the laugh test when he admitted to killing Cecil but claimed that he thought everything about the expedition was on the up and up.
The Internet Mob in this case probably did not wait for the wheels of Justice to turn as slowly and imperfectly as they often do. They did not want Palmer to hide behind a lawyer whose legal and ethical responsibility would require him or her to get an optimal outcome for this semi-cowardly hunter even if that means complete acquittal.
The problem is that the mob produces a lot of collateral damage as a result. Fisher points outrage is Palmer’s family who no longer have his income to support them. I haven’t done much research here so I don’t know if Palmer is caring for children and/or other relatives who cannot take care of themselves. Palmer’s employees also now need to scramble to find new jobs and hope they can find jobs at equal or better pay before the next landlord or mortgage bill comes due.
Sometimes or often mob’s pick the wrong target or pick a target for proxy punishment when the real culprits are unreachable. Other times, a mob can pick the “right” (in scare quotes because right is not meant to convey moral correctness but just someone the mob hates) target but there is a lot of collateral damage or the target is completely innocent except for imaginary crimes.
I am not sure about what the solution to Internet Mob Justice is though. I am generally opposed to telling people that their causes don’t matter because that is really offensive and pompous. This is not to say I agree with people or find all causes morally equal or equivalent but part of individual autonomy and freedom is the right to decide for yourself what is important. On the other hand, Fisher is right and these things are really getting too far out of control. The internet seems to be in perpetual esclation mode and this seems to be over every possible issue from children at diner to animals to everything else imaginable. The internet can connect the 50,000 people who care deeply enough about an issue to make someone feel really miserable even if these 50,000 people would just have been labeled solo cranks in decades before. Sometimes it only takes one very dedicated person to make life miserable for someone (first story and audio).
So how do we get people to calm down and react in ways that is not the ID running out of control? I meant what I said above about not telling people that their causes are not important but the other problem is that everyone can have something that is really important to them and they are willing to go all in for and this leads to everyone potentially being the victim of a mob.