Monday, May 11, 2015

Internet Shaming & the Limits of the Social Contract

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...
English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Recently in the news, there was a story about a Colorado resident that came across a family allowing their children to carve their names onto the hand rail of a state park. When confronted about allowing his children to deface federal property, the father of the group was rude and dismissive, and the person eventually took a picture of the people and posted it online, where the story and picture "went viral" and elevated the incident to national news status. Currently, state authorities have indicated that they've used the picture to gain some leads towards tracking down the responsible family, as defacing state park equipment is punishable by hefty fines and possibly jail time, and so the story has - on the surface, at least - a happy ending.

My initial reaction to this story got me thinking about the pervasiveness of Social Media these days, mainly because my immediate response was "Good." I'm sure most people reading the story felt the same way. What's there not to cheer about, after all? Everybody hates assholes, as this family appeared to be by the description given by the person who outed them, and they were committing a crime, so on the surface it really feels like justice was served. But there's a larger question behind this, and I'm not sure if we're fulling considering the ramifications of our overwhelming acceptance of incidents such as this one.

Government surveillance has been an ongoing concern for as long as there has been government oppression, up to and including the current controversies surrounding Homeland Security's collection of public cell phone records. It's even been turned around as a tool against corruption, with the recent surge in questionable police tactics resulting in an increased desire to have police recorded in action by both themselves and others, with many states now passing legislation both for and against the latter. More than ever, the average citizen is aware that he or she is being listened to or watched.

There has also been more attention to invasion of privacy between citizens. Loopholes in voyeurism  or "Peeping Tom" laws are being closed to include "upskirt" videos and "revenge porn" in the the language regarding what is and is not considered an invasion of privacy. But there's a gray area that continues to avoid scrutiny, and that comes with the territory when we consider our growing acceptance of the increasing practice of publicly displaying videos and pictures on social media and media sharing sites like Facebook or YouTube.

It could be argued whether this is a communal advancement in communication or just an increased narcissism encouraged by the proliferation of high-quality digital photography equipment. After all, people took pictures of themselves and shared them with others way before Selfies and Vine shorts. It's just the ease with which this can now be accomplished that we find it happening on such a grand scale. But there's an off-shoot of this cultural phenomenon that has a much larger social impact, and it involves incidents like the State Park one mentioned above.

More and more, we find people using the internet to "expose" or "bring attention to" someone or something that they find unacceptable or reprehensible. We probably don't think twice about it, because usually it's something that we can find ourselves agreeing with in some way, whether it's Ricky Gervais mocking big game hunter selfies, or commuters sharing videos of road rage bullies. We are all asked to shake our fingers as a community at somebody we generally agree should be ostracized to some extent, and short of defending the act or behavior being exposed, we can so little but nod our heads in agreement and move on to the next link.

Alarm bells don't ring instinctively because this doesn't feel like surveillance or oppression. It isn't a government or organization seeking to defame an innocent person, after all. Then again, the news these days seems to do little more than engage in gossip and character speculation with political figures or well-known celebrities, so even if that were the case it is questionable if we would protest to much at that kind of behavior. And aren't we fed a regular diet of public spectacle on prime time television now, with Americans singing or dancing or displaying other talents for our communal approval or, more popularly, derision?

Beyond all of this, however, is the real dilemma posed by actions like this. Social media is indeed being used as a tool for social justice. The question is, how comfortable should we be with this? Technically, this could be considered an extension of the social contract to which we all silently bind ourselves. Society expects certain communal behaviors, certain spoken or unspoken rules to be followed, and those that aren't adhered to cause a retaliation by the rest of society. The loud, disruptive theater goer, if not silenced by the management, will eventually be confronted by the other people being disturbed in the audience.

We see this kind of thing happening to some degree through social media outlets like Twitter, where thousands of users will suddenly flood the system with reactions to something they have deemed as outrageous, usually a quote from a public figure of authority or celebrity. Even when posted under actual names, there is a level of anonymity - or at least distance - that emboldens us to speak out actively, and in many cases belligerently or in an abusive manner, against statements or actions that why might have simply shrugged off in the past.

But then there are the instances that can be more accurately described as Social Vigilantism, like the Colorado case I mentioned before. Every couple of weeks there's some "viral" campaign that winds up drawing national attention to some action or event that has garnered outrage. Everything from pizza shops refusing to cater gay weddings to acts of violence finds its way into the public eye and becomes the focus of what might be described as public shaming. Its the digital equivalent of dragging someone into the town square and presenting their crimes to the public for open debate.

On the surface we could agree that this is a good thing. People coming to the aid of others, or taking more of an interest in the world around them, that is a positive move away from the detachment and apathy that the internet has been predicted by many to instill in the populace. And if this "power of the people" is used to expose dangerous behaviors or punish crimes, then what could possibly be the harm?

Of course, the problem is that this kind of media-based vigilantism is prone to the same flaws as those posed by the classic vigilante. As soon as we let individuals take the law into their own hands, the fine line between Charles Bronson gunning down street hoodlums in Death Wish and Bernie Goetz doing the same to underage muggers becomes blurred. And when the public begin dispensing its own brand of justice instead of the individual, it becomes a case of "mob rule," which is rarely shown in a positive light.

But are these acts of public shaming Mob Rule or Vigilantism? The acceptability of these online attacks began bothering me when I noticed the irony involved in instances where bullies were filmed harassing people - everything from schoolyard pummeling to homophobic slurs and sexist catcalls - and then subjected to public assault and ridicule online. As a childhood victim of bullying myself, it is hard for me to find fault with publicly denouncing such behavior and forcing those who would prey on others to answer for their deeds. But then there is the irony, the idea that the punishment for attacking someone in a demeaning fashion should be to demean them publicly. It's an eye-for-an-eye mentality that feels good but leaves much to be desired in a civilized society, and it comes with enough moral pitfalls to deserve a closer examination.

And sometimes the punishment may be worse than the crime. Take the woman who posted a picture of herself screaming and flipping the bird next to a sign demanded quiet and respect. She thought it was funny, but since the sign was posted at a veteran's memorial cemetery, the picture offended some people and was sent "viral" by angry posts sharing the picture. The end result of the media attention that followed was the loss of her job. A fair result? You could argue that she had only herself to blame, and maybe those seeking to be controversial shouldn't be surprised when people respond. But if there is to be a penalty for bad taste or poor decisions, are we comfortable with our own actions being held to such a standard?

The idea of public approval should also raise more questions. It always feels good when we find ourselves in agreement with like-minded individuals, and raising our voices in defiance or retaliation with others is the foundation of our laws protecting freedom of speech and public assembly. But then, that always comes down to who is defining the gathering as a protest or a mob, and which end of the dissent your find yourself on. Raising concerns and addressing injustices can be argued to be the responsibility of the community, of society as a whole, but that usually also involves some to of governing structure or organizational body behind the scenes lending order and civility to the communal actions.

It's a balancing act behind most discourse that one doesn't necessarily see in the realm of Social Media. We have an increasingly insignificant amount of control over our public visibility; anybody can create a "meme" using your image or post a video of you doing something you'd rather not have others see, and beyond the limited legal resources you might have to restrict that usage, there's practically nothing you can do to prevent somebody from turning your life into a viral campaign against whatever it is about you they don't like.

We have a growing awareness of "cyber-bullying," yet only seem willing to acknowledge it when it involves teenage girls (or their parents) driving the intended victim to self-harm or suicide. We don't make the same connection to the family carving initials into a railing or the drunk frat boys harassing the gay couple on the street because... well, because we don't like them, and defending people whose actions we deplore isn't a popular pastime.

I'm not saying I have an answer to all of this, or a solution to whatever problems this kind of debate raises. But it doesn't appear to be a conversation that we are having, and that could prove to be disastrous in the long term.

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