Walking the line between moral outrage and cyberbullying


The internet is the ultimate equalizer. Thanks to social media, it has become a forum where everyone’s voice can be heard; no longer do newspaper editors and TV anchors have a monopoly on reaching massive audiences. This unprecedented level of social interaction gives regular people extraordinary access to the lives of public figures, as well as enabling people to easily mobilize to demand change. But due the sheer volume of these voices, moderation and reason often get lost in the noise. And, on the internet, as in life, it’s usually anger that gets broadcast the loudest.

Internet outrage has become a virtual cottage industry. We are quick to demand apologies, resignations and dismissals whenever we encounter offensive posts — in many cases, rightfully so. When celebrities, politicians and corporations post something that is offensive, inappropriate or just plain crude, the public has every right to hold them accountable. These powerful public figures ought to be wary of their online presence. They should know better than to send lewd pictures to female followers, like the infamous former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner. Or to invoke the Boston Bombings to promote cranberry scones, as food company Epicurious did just two days after the attacks. But the problem is that, with social media, the lines between public and private are blurred. Just who is fair game for public shame?

Just recently, a local TV anchor in Pittsburgh was fired for a Facebook post she made about a fatal shooting at a party. Though her overall tone was heartfelt and focused on healing, her post included on negative stereotypes about black people. She characterized the culprits, who had not yet been identified, as almost certainly “young black men… [with] multiple siblings from multiple fathers… [who] have been in the system before.”

In another instance, a PR manager for IAC, an online media company, tweeted to her personal account, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” just before boarding a plane for Cape Town. While on her 11-hour flight, unbeknownst to her, the tweet went viral and started trending on twitter. Despite having only 170 followers, she arrived in Cape Town to discover that millions of Twitter users had labeled her a racist, demanded her dismissal from IAC and even mocked her predicament with the hashtag, “#HasJustineLandedYet.”

The point isn’t to defend what these people said; making jokes about AIDS is despicable. But it is important to understand that the consequences of online shame extend beyond the internet. Once an offender’s personal information is made public, they may be subject to hacking, death threats and real-world harassment. One ill-advised post may cost someone not only their job, but their social life, personal privacy, future employment and sense of safety.

What does this accomplish? Instead of addressing the underlying issues or condemning certain kinds of behavior, we are simply targeting individuals, turning ordinary people into public pariahs, worthy of abuse. At what point does moral indignation give way to downright cyber bullying?

To be clear, racism, bigotry and prejudice are undeniably real and pressing issues in America. But often with cases such as these, the remarks are born from naivety and ignorance, rather than malice or hatred. Should these remarks be addressed? Absolutely. But by allowing the offenders to be tried online in the court of public opinion, there’s no limit to how far we may go in punishing them.

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