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When Hackers become Judge, Jury, and Executioner

20th of August, 2015

By now, we have all heard the story of the famous lion and subject of Oxford study, Cecil, and his death at the hands of a Minnesotan hunter. This recent event has brought the debate on the morality and continued existence of game hunting into public scrutiny, and no social media feed is free from commenters weighing in on the subject. At the moment, however, it seems the controversy is moving into the fourteenth minute of its fame, and so now is the time not to add to the echo chamber of outrage, but rather discuss a more insidious trend that the unfolding of this story reveals, and that has serious implications for us all: the trend of internet mob and vigilante justice coming into reality through access to people’s personal online information.


Anyone who has ever been on the Internet has seen how, from the faceless position behind a computer screen, anyone can release uncharacteristic levels of anger with the click of a button. Although this act of venting anger does not help get rid of it, it’s both impossible from a legal stance and undesirable from a freedom of speech stance to try and regulate rude or angry comments on the Internet. However, this innocuous fact of Internet life becomes dangerous when it leaps into reality. And that’s exactly what happened when the personal information of the Minnesota dentist––as well as his family’s––was found and spread throughout social media. The real-world implications of what began as Internet outrage have been the closure of the dental office and the dentist himself going into hiding.


At this point I should clarify something: I don’t necessarily condone game hunting, and at this point the hunter has been accused of using illegal methods in this and other instances of hunting. These are all serious issues that must and almost certainly will be dealt with in court; but in an area of the world that roundly condemns capital punishment, I wonder how lynch mobs can grow so easily. Perhaps, rage incubated on the Internet is not quite used to having itself taken seriously: when somebody makes a threat on the internet, I don’t think anyone really feels threatened, because, after all, it’s just an Internet comment. But this is no longer the case. Now people’s personal information is more available than ever, and as the echo chamber of outrage continues to augment a group’s bravado, the more likely it becomes that someone will take their anger from the desktop to the street.


This movement from a mere comment on a computer screen into reality doesn’t always have to look like physical violence, either; with someone’s personal information acquired online, a group can send device-ruining spam, vandalize the person’s property, psychologically harass them with constant death threats, and severely damage their finances, right to the point of emptying bank accounts or ruining credit. The consequences of leaked personal information are hugely variable and aren’t always physical in nature, but they do all have the potential to profoundly ruin a person’s life.


This may not seem like a problem when the mob has its eyes on unsympathetic characters like this dentist or Kanye West, but in our tacit acceptance of this kind of Internet mob justice, we begin to lose our sense of justice. A good example of the schism between how we think justice should work and how Internet mob justice distorts that ideal is the case of the Ashley Madison site leaks reported on by Wired. Amid the nervous laughter of spouses all across the world, there arose a similar question to that of the dentist: if we morally condemn the act, shouldn’t those who do it be punished? This is the key juncture: however imperfectly its manifestation, an enduring system of law and order must have its foundation in pragmatic logic and reason, not on emotion and certainly not on puritanical ethics. For as morally objectionable as cheating on a spouse may be, it is not a crime in all countries. In fact, there are only a handful of countries that adultery is illegal in, The Week lists them in detail. The people using the site should not be treated as criminals, nor have their personal information illegally leaked. Kanye may be annoying to some people, but this does not make him a criminal, and doesn’t deserve the wrath of Anonymous. And while the Minnesotan dentist may have broken the law, what we see in response is not the solemn hand of justice, but the hysterical cry for blood of an Internet mob. The incongruence between the anger and the act is made clear not only by the poll data that shows people’s aversion to capital punishment, but also in the fact that there is not this level of outrage when a fellow human being is killed for even more senseless reasons. Surely not everyone who is outraged by Cecil’s death values the life of the lion over a human life––at most I think the moral thing would be to value them somewhat equally––but passed through the sieve of the Internet mob mentality, only the most potent and irrational anger comes out.


The upshot of this observation is to say that we need to be very vigilant in our criticism of vigilante justice. These stories also exemplify the very sensitive nature of our online privacy. Sure, today it’s the “bad guys” who are the targets of personal information leaks and threats on their lives, but if we allow for emotional decisions to dictate what is to be punished, we have to be very aware of our own skeletons. While the Internet has meant an unprecedented revolution in how we communicate and acquire information, we have also been made very vulnerable by it, and remembering how much of your own information could potentially be leaked one day by a similar internet mob is important to remember before you join in on the threats.


No where else in our society do we tolerate this kind of “justice”, and as the internet has become a huge part of our society, with our virtual and real lives quickly becoming one, we need to extend the same level of human decency and level-headedness to our online conduct, or be ready to deal with the barbarians when they’re at our own gates. Remember, for human civilization to remain, humans must remain civilized.

About Matthew Sleiman

Matthew is pursuing his Master’s degree from the University of Toronto in English Literature. At his core, Matt believes in carving emotions out of writing — not describing them.  

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