The Consequences of Mob Justice in the Digital Age

Digital mob justice forgoes the vital assumption fundamental to our justice system: innocent until proven guilty. In its place is the reverse sentiment: guilty until proven innocent.

Hate speech is real. People say terrible things to one and another, and most of the time they seem to get away with it. But a recent trend of exposing racists, homophobes, and alike, by recording their behaviour and posting on social media, has taken to the front lines of combatting intolerance. News feeds are now inundated with footage of racist tirades, homophobic bigots, and injustices of every description.

Naturally, such footage can get the blood boiling, and some committed viewers may even try and right the wrong they have seen online with a dose of real world justice. The most common course of action seems to involve identifying the troublemaker in the video and reporting their behaviour to the company that they work for, insisting their termination. When enough people do this, the company usually buckles, and the troublemaker is fired.

Intuitively, this feels like justice. But justice is more than a feeling, it is a process. And it comes equipped with a range of rules and requirements designed to ensure that it stays on track. As satisfying as it is to rally together against a common evil, the absence of such rules and requirements paves the way for the miscarriage of justice.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

There is hardly an instance of digital mob justice more unjust than that of Emmanuel Cafferty: Cafferty was driving home from work one day, his arm dangling out the window of his company car, when suddenly another driver pulled up beside him at the lights and flipped him off. The stranger then flashed what looked like the “okay” hand symbol while he continued to verbally harass Cafferty. At the next light stop, the stranger was once again making noise, although this time he was equipped with his phone, evidently recording. He urged Cafferty to “Do it again! Do it again!”. Unsure what this stranger was expecting, Cafferty decided to copy the “okay” hand symbol he was repeatedly shown. Unbeknownst to him, this symbol had recently been appropriated by white-supremacists for its structural similarity to the initials of “white-power”.

Twitter was shortly alive with photographic ‘proof’ that Cafferty was a white-supremacist. Soon enough, the company he worked for, San Diego Gas & Electric, were receiving dozens of phone calls pressuring them to fire Cafferty. Within hours he received a call from his supervisor, and within a week he was fired from his job.

Cafferty communicated to company investigators the fact that he had no idea that white supremacists had adopted the “okay” hand symbol. It is also relevant to note that Cafferty’s mother is Latina and his father half Mexican. Despite the context, and all evidence to the contrary, the twitter mob prevailed and Cafferty was fired from his job.

Such is the danger of digital mob justice. Sympathetic viewers have a tendency to accept the narrator’s point of view, with little to no context. These viewers are quick to transform into an angry mob, eager to punish the villain of the story that they have readily accepted. In this way, digital mob justice forgoes the vital assumption fundamental to our justice system: innocent until proven guilty. In its place is the reverse sentiment: guilty until proven innocent.

There is a fundamental flaw to this logic, in that it is not possible to prove a ‘negative’. Applying this to the current example: it is virtually impossible for Cafferty to prove that he was unaware of the meaning of the “okay” hand symbol within the context of white supremacy. Cafferty was thus doomed from the start. For him, this was a random instance of bad luck:

“What am I supposed to learn from this? It’s like I was struck by lightning.”

Unfortunately such miscarriages of justice are becoming more common in today’s volatile social climate. Many are eager to fight injustice in any way they can, but the truth is not always obvious, especially when facts are taken out of context. Considering the context, or lack thereof, as well as the presumption of innocence is vital to ensuring that the outcome of a case is deliberate and just. Although it may be tempting to rally against racism, homophobia, and every other face of intolerance, it is important to be sure that we are doing just that. It took millennia for the concept of due process to emerge from our mistakes. Let us apply it our problems moving forward.

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About Steven Psaradakis 68 Articles
As a science graduate interested in truth and wellbeing, Steven's writing explores current affairs from a measured and logical perspective. Steven's work has been shared in Dialogue & Discourse, The Innovation, and Data Driven Investor.