Social media activism and the (in)justice of the mob

I just want to say this from the get-go: This story has nothing to do with Kony 2012. In fact, when it comes to the sordid side of online activism, that particular meme barely registers in terms of real damage.

In the last seven days alone, web activism has seen two cases with far more potential for direct, personal harm.  While both cases involve causes worthy of attention, they differ substantially in why and how they are dangerous.

Dabgerous tweets@Xeni via Twitter

A screenshot of the ugly turn taken by the tweet bomb directed at Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin.


Case one is the Twitter bomb heard round the world.

Last Thursday a group of online activists tried to call attention to food shortage issues in the Horn of Africa by spamming celebrities for retweets, targeting celebrities who shared their interesting in gaming tech culture with the belief that these celebrities might be more inclined to embrace the cause. While this tactic can work when done on a personal level, when a collective starts pouring messages at a celebrity account, the effect changes substantially.

Now, I’ve asked celebrities on Twitter for help before.  A couple of years back, I asked Neil Gaiman to help raise money for Dreams Come True in the United Kingdom, an organization similar to the Make a Wish Foundation in the States. He graciously helped out with a retweet and many of his followers donated to the cause. It is worth noting that I included a drawing for signed copies of Gaimian’s “Coraline,” which I had purchased on my own, as part of the fundraising process.

So not only did I, and only I, ask for help, but there was also a slight promotional assist for Gaiman as well. He may very well have helped anyway, but the fact that I offered something in return matters as a form of politeness and etiquette.

Compare this to what happened when these activists swarmed a number of Twitter accounts with numerous demands for help offering nothing in return. The most tragic result of these Twitter bombs transpired when the group targeted Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, who recently completed a round of chemotherapy and has shared her cancer story with her Twitter followers.

Jardin monitors her own account and frequently has conversations with followers, so a flood of comments interferes with her ability to see legitimate conversations and is impossible to ignore.

So it was reasonable when Jardin took offense at the flood of tweets attempting to leverage* her battle with cancer as a form of pressure to support the starving children in Africa. Her anger was — and is — justified. Sadly, that anger caused the online activist mob to respond in anger as well, quickly agitating the situation into remarkably dark territory.

The attacks poured in, telling Jardin to “burn in hell whore”, wishing for her death, and (perhaps worst of all) asking what her problem was with the entire ordeal. “If you don’t want to get tweet bombed, get off Twitter” seemed a common take, followed closely by we’re just trying to raise awareness.

But therein lies the problem: the justification of aggressive, invasive, and unilateral activism behind the shield of doing the right thing. Somehow the deplorable Westboro Baptist model of activism became web chic. I cannot imagine a positive outcome if the trend continues.

While it might be easy to side against the horrific actions of those attacking Jardin, another recent social activist creates a tougher choice. Stuart Chaifetz, a New Jersey father of a 10-year-old autistic child, has gone to the Internet to get a teacher who verbally abused his child fired.

Chaifetz, disturbed by his son’s increased behavioral issues at school, opted to wire the child one day. The wire revealed disturbing comments by the teacher and her aides. Since this revelation, Chaifetz reports that the aide was fired and the teacher has moved to another school in the same district.

Rightly or wrongly, this wasn’t enough to satisfy Chaifetz. After finding out that the teacher remained on the school district’s payroll, Chaifetz began a campaign online to get the teacher fired, starting with a Change.org petition to reform New Jersey law to fire any teacher found to bully students. Appearances with Diane Sawyer, Anderson Cooper, and Fox News have followed.

Thus far the actions sound reasonable and commendable. For a time, Chaifetz only identified the accused teacher by her first name, but on Tuesday Chaifetz published a video revealing the teacher’s full name to prove that she still worked in the school district.

That crosses a perilous line.

Whipping the Internet into a frenzy and then unleashing the wrong-doer’s name guarantees a dangerous mob mentality. It's fine to work with lawmakers to influence the school, use the press to pressure the school, or use petitions to show the support of the community, but the line must be drawn before unleashing a mob, online or otherwise, upon any individual. There is simply no way to control such a group once it is formed, and little ability to prevent actual, physical violence from resulting.  

This cannot be the future of online activism because it guarantees that eventually someone is going to get seriously harmed, never mind the censorship that it invites.

Make no mistake: When that person does get hurt, those who incited the mob are the ones with the blood on their hands.