Muzzling the online vigilantes
There is a new justice being administered online by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people who have learned to use the Internet as a tool for investigation and retribution against perceived or suspected wrongdoers. It seems to have started within the last two years with the online bulletin board 4Chan and within the hackers loosely assembled under the name Anonymous. It has since migrated to community sites such as Reddit. Sometimes, the target is a cad suspected of bullying somebody. Recently, amateur sleuths tried to figure out who was behind the Boston Marathon bombings.
It’s well past time to put on the brakes. Uncontrolled online mob vigilantism can potentially wreck lives as enthusiastic dilettantes investigate people in public and rush to inaccurate conclusions.
Last week an informal group of self-deputized online activists communicating on a Reddit board called “/r/findbostonbombers” identified Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who has been missing since mid-March, as perpetrator of the Boston bombing. Tripathi’s family, still trying to find their kin, was gracious in their response. But the implication was libelous. Those who perpetuated it should face consequences.
Reddit has since apologized, as did the moderator of the “FindBostonBombers” page. The moderator referenced the site’s “no personal information until confirmation” rule, which is meant to prevent this type of error. The rule failed. If Reddit wants to prevent something like this from happening again, it should ban the use of its forums for investigating crimes. There is no reason to believe that the Reddit community can effectively police itself.
Enabled by mass-produced technology, the United States is fast becoming a society of snoops and tattletales. While this has obvious advantages for law enforcement, it threatens the health of civil society, which depends on trust among its members. Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at Johns Hopkins University, argued in his 2007 book, Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government, that trust is the basis of a functioning democracy. He cited, for example, the difficulties that Iraq’s people face as the country moves from a society dominated by informants to Saddam Hussein’s secret police toward a collaborative democracy. We don’t yet know what happens to an established democracy when its citizens become willing and enthusiastic informants to the police.
People seem overly forgiving of online activists after the Boston bombings because, despite mistakes, the activists were genuinely trying to help law enforcement officials. The Reddit investigation seemed to be something of an extension of the “If you see something, say something” post-9/11 security ethos.
In other instances, online activists have won some measure of public sympathy by targeting odious people. Hackers affiliated with Anonymous claimed in mid-April that they know the identities of at least two Nova Scotia teenagers who have been accused of raping classmate Rehtaeh Parsons and then cyber-bullying her until she committed suicide. The incident has attracted attention because, despite photographs of the alleged crime, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police decided it did not have sufficient evidence to charge any of the boys. The group is demanding “immediate legal action against the individuals in question,” or it will, if the Parsons family consents, release the names, substituting public shaming for a criminal prosecution.
Of course, there is no due process when dealing with Anonymous. Just as with the Reddit investigators, we have to trust their motives, their restraint, their ability to police themselves and their willingness to be fair. Even if they take the utmost care, mistakes are possible and, of course, there will be times when online investigators believe that crimes have been committed but the authorities don’t.
People are free, of course, to say what they want and to investigate what they want. People in public spaces have no real expectation of privacy. But there needs to be some negative consequences for those investigations that have gone wrong, if only to deter amateur sleuths from too enthusiastically pursuing their quarry and smearing people with allegations. One answer would be to give those who are publicly accused of a crime, but never convicted, an easy avenue to sue their accusers in civil court. In cases where the accusers use online handles, those who are accused and exonerated should be able to compel Internet service providers and services like Reddit to identify their users. If the Recording Industry Association of America can identify online music pirates, surely somebody falsely accused of a crime should be able to identify their antagonist.
In the U.S., it is purposefully difficult to bring successful suit for libel or slander, as the laws are written largely to protect the rights of people to speak their minds and to sometimes make mistakes. A complainant has to prove not only that false statements about them were harmful but also that the statements were the result of recklessness and malice.
Civil libertarians tend to worry about the government’s surveillance powers but, practically speaking, the nosy neighbor is probably more a threat to people’s privacy and reputations than government eavesdropping. These days, that neighbor could be a stranger living thousands of miles away. It could be an accuser who will never have to face you. Our laws need to be updated to deal with that.
PHOTO: Boston police officer Pat Duggan writes in chalk outside a makeshift memorial along Newbury street in Boston, Massachusetts April 17, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton