A New York Times story last month described a new phenomenon in China in which groups of “netizens” hunt down wrong-doers through online crowd-sourcing and sleuthing. According to the story, a group of online vigilantes determined the identity of a woman who had posted a video of herself torturing and killing a kitten. Within a few days, the vigilantes were able to piece together clues and identify her by eliciting information from readers on Mop, a popular online forum. Ultimately, the woman and her camera man were publicly shamed and expelled from their public sector jobs, cutting them out of the prospect of pensions and lifetime employment.
Mob justice is nothing new, but the Internet moves it along faster than before. Also, the Internet expands the playing field from the proverbial village of twenty or so torch-bearing peasants to potentially the entire online world. In other words, the Internet’s gifts to mob justice are speed and reach. The kitten killer was picked out of a population of 1.3 billion Chinese in six days. But the problem with speed, when applied to an angry mob, is that it tends to skip over due process. The kitten killer story led me to three conclusions about online mass collaboration known as crowd-sourcing:
- Online actions have real-world consequences. Every day, social networks provide us with rich new examples that what we do online doesn’t stay there, including a recent report attributing the huge popularity of Facebook in the United Kingdom to a fourfold rise in syphilis cases. But real-world consequences are nowhere sadder than in cyber-bullying. This was brought into focus recently with news of a 15-year old Massachusetts girl who hanged herself after being bullied both physically and through social networks and harassing text messages. Politicians who supported the recently passed U.S. health care overhaul legislation have faced their own version of cyber-bullying, as some angry constituents have begun hurling online threats at their representatives. Even a prominent opponent’s Twitter comment encouraging supporters not to retreat but to “reload” has been considered overly hostile by some, as was a follow-up Facebook post containing a U.S. map and the crosshairs of a gun sight to mark the home states of Congress members who supported the bill.
- Privacy through anonymity is extinct. Clearly, the kitten killer assumed that with a generic backdrop behind her and no names attached to her video post she could get away with her crime. As educated Internet users, I suspect we are all due for a rethink of what privacy means for us, how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to participate in online communities, and what the consequences may be of divulging bits and pieces of our personalities to a potentially unlimited audience. Even a photo we post of ourselves, shared among friends, may be used to identify our location or other information about us. This was demonstrated recently by a woman whose chatty Facebook posts provided enough information about her whereabouts that it resulted in her house being burglarized by one of her “friends.” A Chinese official was recently discredited after his bawdy diary—outlining dalliances and drinking—was published online. This may be another example of vigilante justice, but it is also a reminder of the perils of creating a virtual paper trail that can come back to haunt you. Another problem with assumed anonymity is that it can cause people to act rashly and callously—and this is something of which both the woman who killed the kitten and those who brought her to justice may be guilty.
- Sheer numbers don’t equal brains. The same power harnessed by online vigilante groups to track down wrongdoers and publicly shame them can and has been used for more positive purposes. Indeed, crowd-sourcing, like mob justice, is not a new idea, but it has been super-charged by the Internet. A classic example of this is Wikipedia, which at least one fairly rigorous study found to be at least as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, and more current. More recently, a group of MIT students won a DARPA challenge by tracking down, before any other team, the latitude and longitude of ten red balloons, hidden in secret locations across the United States, simply through social networking. The concept of crowd-sourcing is said to have evolved from the famous observation that the weight of an ox is more accurately estimated by taking the average of guesses made by a group of people at a state fair than by any one guess on its own. But this phenomenon flies in the face of the angry crowd, which puts someone to death in the heat and excitement of the moment before realizing that the person was mistakenly accused. We may wish to take this as a reminder that “group think” can be as dangerous as taking any one person’s word for anything.
As in so many things, knowledge is a powerful tool, and generally speaking, more people putting their minds to a task is better than fewer. What leads to good or bad outcomes will ultimately be based on what we as “netizens” do with the gift of knowledge, scope and speed that the World Wide Web brings to us.