The Internet outcry against Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer after his involvement in the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe was fast and furious. As the story trended on social media, got picked up by celebrities and went on to spawn legislation to limit international big game hunting, Dr. Palmer’s life has unraveled. Whether or not you agree with the anger directed at this man, it is important to acknowledge the dangers of real world consequences resulting from an online story going “viral.”
Within days of the story hitting the Internet, Dr. Palmer’s dental practice has been shuttered. Thousands of people posted irate reviews of his Minnesota office on Yelp, flooded his phone numbers with angry messages, overran his Facebook page and showed up in person to leave stuffed lions on the doorstep of his dental office to protest his actions. He’s gone into hiding, and will likely never be able to safely return to his home or business.
Those that share in the outrage over his actions may be quick to say that he deserves this, and it is difficult to put aside personal feelings about big game hunting when considering the situation and it’s aftermath for Dr. Palmer. But when a trending story results in real world ramifications, the results can be devastating to those overwhelmed by a public outrage stoked by the wildfire spread of news, anecdotal reports and rumors in today’s digital age.
According to a Pew Research Center report released in September 2014 (“How Social Media is Reshaping News,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/24/how-social-media-is-reshaping-news/), 64% of U.S. adults use Facebook, and half those get news there. That equates to about 30% of the general population. On the surface, that may not seem troubling. But consider the source of many of the stories that trend on social media. It’s easy to get sucked into a sensational headline and splashy photo without noticing the source of the material. Friends and acquaintances “like” and “share”various accounts of “trending” items until you’ve seen a particular story in your news feed so often you may assume that it’s reliable. But some of the information passed this way is anything but. Seriously – how many times will people believe that Betty White or MaucaulayCulkin have met an untimely death?
Falling for a hoax can have costly consequences for the victims of rumors or misinformation that spread online. Imagine if news broke in your news feed, with a link to a local news report or blog post, that your favorite sandwich shop was using the meat of stray animals in their sausage? If the story gained traction, and an angry, animal-loving public acted against the sandwich shop in question, it could devastate their business. Now imagine that the story was faked: concocted by an up and coming sandwich shop owner who got an anonymous tip turned into a sensational story that hit social media before it was fully vetted. Regardless of whether or not the story was later proved to be inaccurate or “retracted,” that sandwich shop would always remain for some people the “stray sausage” sandwich place.
While misinformation can have perilous consequences in this day of rapid-fire news sharing, the court of public opinion, led by Internet “trolls” (which are, according to Urban Dictionary, those who seek out people to argue with on the internet) is also gaining an uncomfortable amount of power. Consider the demise of Ellen Pao’s career as Interim Chief Executive at Reddit, an online story and opinion sharing site that has gained popularity as a censorship-free, anything goes community. Users submit stories and comment on other’s posts, and Reddit users vote the story or comment up or down, moving popular items to the top of the page.
When Ellen Pao took over as Interim Chief Executive, Reddit had gained a somewhat seedy reputation as a haven for hate, racism and shaming. Derogatory comments would get voted up while the “Redditrabble” would shout down more eloquent, thoughtful responses. A variety of hate-infused “sub-Reddit” pages had been allowed to run relatively unchecked with themes like neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism and “fat shaming” where photos of overweight individuals were posted without their permission and then readers would degrade and heckle the subjects in the photos. In some cases, personal information about individuals was posted with the photos, allowing people to seek them out in the real world.
Ellen Pao oversaw a fundamental shift in Reddit policy toward tighter restrictions on harassment. A policy was introduced banning involuntary pornography, and five of Reddit’s most hate-filled “sub-Reddits” were banned. Holding Ms. Pao to blame for what was seen as the censorship of Reddit, angry users responded with online threats against her and her family, the posting of online petitions at change.org calling for her resignation, and a daily deluge of comments and cartoons filled with ire and venom. Eventually, Ms. Pao resigned her post,stating, “The trolls of the Internet are winning.”
Should the loudest voices – many of which are from people hiding behind the anonymity of the online community in order to spew hate and anger – be allowed to dictate the actions of other people, companies, politicians and our country? When they don’t have to attach their real-world identity to a comment or post, people that are driven by a need for attention (via “likes,” “shares,” or replies to what they’ve posted) will often veer to the extreme, inciting a more impassioned response from others regardless of the validity of their statements.
And should we, as a society, inflict real-world consequences on people who’ve gained notoriety through a social media public shaming? If it were you, a friend, or a loved one that was the subject of a mass public response to an online story, would you be able to survive the flood? Before you get caught up in the next public outcry over a trending story, be sure that you vet the source material and consider that the subject of the story is a real person, with a real family, on the other side of that computer screen.Digital & Social Articles on Business 2 Community