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Social Media Vigilantism – Have We Gone Too Far?

Over the course of the last few weeks there has been significant discussion about the very disturbing, derogatory and blatantly sexist #FHRITP trend. Let me point out from the get-go that I personally believe there is nothing about this trend that is excusable. It is wrong, period. I would however, like to discuss a hidden story here within the larger issue of sexual harassment.

Last Thursday, in the course of reading about the Hydro One employee being fired from his $100K+ job for participating in this sad trend, I tweeted about how this was yet another example of the need for education on personal digital footprints (something I have written extensively on). A few people took offense to my tweet in that they thought it was the wrong lesson and that “to not sexually harass women” should be the only conversation here.  I clarified my position, realizing that it was being misinterpreted and removed the original tweet to avoid any further confusion. I have rarely done this, but in this case I felt it was necessary given another rising trend occurring these days, social media vigilantism,  which I will discuss in a moment. Coincidentally, CBC actually released a documentary on Social Media Shaming as this event was unfolding (video screenshot at the top of this post).

To clarify the above, I wasn’t trying to pull out a lesson from this particular event, I was merely trying to state my observation of the complete disconnect I see in our highly connected digital society in terms of understanding what is private and what is not. Case in point: There was a CBC poll embedded within the original article about the Hydro One employee that asked users: “Should your employer be able to fire you for your behaviours outside of work?”. Nearly 1/3 of respondents disagreed by selecting “No, what you do in your personal life is your own business”.

The scary fact is, many supposedly digitally savvy citizens are yet to connect the dots between their private behaviours and their professional lives. To me, this alone is a newsworthy story but it was being eclipsed by the obvious one on sexual harassment (and rightly so!).

I think people really want to believe that they still have the freedom to do as they wish in their non-working time without repercussions, and so they are willfully blind to the  in-your-face “reality” that is our 24-7, citizen-driven, digital surveillance society (i.e. sousveillance). A reality that can ruin lives in less time than a single flight.

But there is another danger here that we are ignoring. I’m referring to the false positives created by the emotionally driven social media vigilante mob that forms when these sorts of events occur. From photos of the wrong Boston Marathon Bomber suspects circulating on Facebook, to Instagram photos asking users to identify and shame all of the people caught smiling around an #FHRITP incident (without any context whatsoever – perhaps they were smiling at a remark made by someone coming to the reporter’s defense?).  Even if they are guilty of the accused crime and/or socially unacceptable behaviour, where do we draw the line? I recently came across a “shaming” photo on Facebook that was being circulated of a caregiver that had spanked a child in public. Is that really the right course of action? Please note that I am not referring to a case of physical child abuse here but rather a case of someone who disagreed with spanking as a form of discipline and decided to take matters into their own hands. There are too many examples to name these days, however I specifically don’t want to point to any links in detail so as to not grow their footprints any more than they already have.

Many people argue that the perpetrators of these witnessed bad behaviours deserve what they get as punishment for their actions. But is that really fair? Perhaps one could make an argument for it. However, I’m pretty sure that if we all truly believed that, then each and every single person on this planet (especially the social mob participants themselves) should therefore be punished in the same way. I bet that in the last month alone most people have privately made a derogatory joke or comment to a close friend or loved one that they would likely never say out in public (and perhaps regret saying in the first place). Do we get to avoid punishment merely because we were smart enough to not have it recorded?

And yet, we are so quick to judge others, and publicly shame them until they lose their jobs, embarrass themselves, their family, their friends, and permanently alter the public perception of who they are as human beings.

My argument here is simple even though the topic is complex: I want people to at least be aware of the modern digital footprint consequences of their actions (beyond legal ones) as this will likely curb behaviour on both fronts (i.e. the perpetrator and the social mob). If they are aware of the consequences, and still engage in this sort of behaviour, then yes, they definitely get what they deserve (keep in mind that social mob participants can also become victims as a result of their actions).

Would digital footprint education tackle the root issue in the case of #FHRITP (i.e. sexual harassment)? Not at all. But again, that’s not the point of my particular angle on this story, nor is it my area of expertise. I just happen to personally think that if more people were aware (and truly believed) that anything they do these days can be made instantly public, either to their advantage or to their detriment, we would see less of this behaviour and inadvertently we would curb stupidity even if it’s for the wrong reasons (i.e. fear of getting caught as opposed to because it is the right thing to do). This would also hopefully reduce false positives, and lead to less lives being permanently destroyed as a result.

Bottom line: Before you jump in on commenting, re-tweeting, and liking that next “shaming” photo,  be cognizant of how quickly the tide can turn once something that you regret (and likely not a true reflection of you) is publicized without your knowledge from your past, present or future.

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  1. Well articulated Mike. What makes you unique is your ability to speak from a position of understanding the social landscape and how different the online publishing world is. Keep doing what you’re doing in trying to help others step back and realize the impacts on “freedom of speech” that this fast-paced digital environment dictates. It’s hard to achieve that fine balance between saying what’s on our minds and saying nothing, but your barometer helps everyone to fine tune as we go. Thanks.

  2. Mike, thank you for your thoughtful and well written post on an important topical subject. People do need to become cognizantly aware of their digital footprint and the possible consequences of their actions.

  3. Mike, a buddy and I were speaking of this the other day and came to the same conclusion. The implications of an employer being able to terminate a worker due to off-duty transactions are huge. SoMe has become our culture’s accountability system and honestly I think this is fine except that it misses a key variable in this equation–and perhaps the most important variable at that: grace.

  4. Paula Wilson

    Mike, have you been following the Kristen Lindsey veterinarian case? There are at least 15 community fb pages dedicated to the that Kristen Lindsey is guilty of animal cruelty, and mut be punished what everbit takes. The position of these keyboard vigilantis remains constant despite the Grand Jury finding of “no bill.” The GJ verdict leads me to believe that there is in fact no proof that KL committed this crime other than the screen shots of an alledged photograph post and alledged comments. It appears that the photograph may never have been posted on her fb page at all, and she may be victim of fraud.If KL is in fact innocent, I find the situation terrifyingly. How can this woman protect herself? What could she have done to avoid this situation?

    • Hi Paula, from what I’ve read about the case, Kristen is not denying the photo. That being said, these could be false reports as well for all we know. If indeed it is a fake, that could be proven quite quickly with today’s tech. A case like this will eventually unravel itself if she is innocent and the new false positive case study stories will drown out the original ones. If she did indeed kill that cat, then it’s another perfect example of a disturbed individual unaware of the concept of digital permanence.

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