This week delivered a rare victory for a victim of social media mob justice.
A Dallas wedding photographer was awarded US$1.08 million from two newlyweds who relentlessly lambasted her online over a $125 photo album fee.
Following a lengthy and vicious blogging and social media campaign – which later seeped into traditional media coverage – the photographer was forced to shut down her business and live off of savings after she was only able to sign two clients for the season.
By all accounts, the couple was in the wrong over the initial dispute, but the facts of any case grow increasingly insignificant when matters are litigated on social media.
The throngs posting tweets, Facebook updates and Internet comments are indiscriminate. Often, they’re filled with people who don’t even have a dog in the fight, but still want to fuel it 140 characters at a time.
The volume and tone of these messages make them as personally demoralizing as they are career-ending.
Take, for example, Ken Pagan, the former sports writer and newspaper editor who shot to infamy in Canada – and Maryland – after throwing a beer can onto the field of a playoff game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles last fall.
Earlier this summer, Pagan was given a discharge for one count of mischief, conditional on 12 months of probation and 100 hours of community service. The judge sagely noted the real punishment had come from the social media outcry over the previous eight months.
The 42-year-old lost his job and reputation over what he called a “weak moment,” chalking it up to alcohol. His apology for the incident appears sincere, so it was disappointing to hear how much he has paid for something so relatively minor above and beyond his official punishment.
Pagan has been subjected to continuous badgering, threats, harassment of his family and everything in-between. In an interview with CBC, Pagan’s mother shared a moment where his spirit dampened after a random message calling him a “loser” on Christmas morning – months after the incident. I imagine this wasn’t a rare occurrence given the volume of antagonism being thrown his way.
Most people would advise ignoring it, but that’s difficult to do when it’s your name and life in the mob’s warpath.
I went through my own digital hell a couple of years ago, when my own social media missteps exploded in my face.
I had erred. As had Pagan. As have others targeted by the virtual masses. The punishments rarely, if ever, fit the crimes.
My belief is not that comments and actions should be immune from criticism. Calling out wrongdoing is an important element of human communication; social media is a valuable tool for doing so.
But social media mobs have a bloodlust that goes far beyond wanting to simply right wrongs. Their goal is maximum damage.
Those driving these virtual lynchings are uninterested in nuance, instead favouring complete destruction of career, family and arguably personal happiness.
In the justice system, deciding whether someone is guilty is just one part of the equation. A judge also determines what sentence is appropriate. That doesn’t happen in the court of Twitter.
If a media personality says or does something offensive, the petitions and hashtags don’t demand an apology, or a backroom reprimand by human resources – they call for firing.
And even that isn’t enough generally, as there are those who want the “offender” prevented from ever working again. It worked on Pagan, who left media and is now working as a janitor.
I saw this during my own trials as my critics discussed, publicly, the best way to frame their comments in such a way that they could be found in Google searches about me for years to come.
This is neither healthy nor constructive. We’ve created a climate that could ruin anyone’s life at the drop of a hat – particularly as we move closer to a world in which everyone has a digital footprint from childhood onward, and every moment of one’s life is catalogued.
We’ve lost the willingness to engage with adversaries directly and privately to sort out grievances.
A restaurateur friend of mine told me recently that she doesn’t hear of most complaints until the customer types out a bad Yelp review from home – hours, days, or even weeks after they dined there.
Minor issues that could easily be dealt with at the side of the table, instead become public spectacles.
It’s no secret that most people say things through their keyboard they never would face-to-face. No one seems to consider the implication of these words on the receiver.
This is not to say that harmful actions shouldn’t be treated as such. Rather, it’s about recognizing that we all make mistakes, and some day, we will all be under the microscope for something.
Nobody wins when someone combats one’s indiscretion with a campaign intended to harm.
If you do this, proceed with caution – it’s only a matter of time until you’re the one in the crosshairs.