The Atlantic, May 28, 2020: This Social-Media Mob Was Good
There is no doubt that social-media fury can go wrong. In one infamous instance, a young woman made a joke to her small circle on Twitter, just before boarding a plane to South Africa, about White people not getting AIDS. The joke was either racist or making fun of racism depending on your interpretation, but Twitter didn’t wait to find out. By the time the woman had landed, her name was trending worldwide, and she’d been fired from her job.
Throngs on social media violate fundamental notions of fairness and due process: People may be targeted because of a misunderstanding or an out-of-context video. The punishment online mobs can mete out is often disproportionate. Being attacked and ridiculed by perhaps millions of people whom you have never met, and against whom you have no defenses, can be devastating and lead to real trauma.
The vagaries of human nature and the scale and algorithms of social-media platforms fuel case after case of people finding themselves in the midst of such whirlwinds, but sometimes these mobs perform an important function. Sometimes the social-media mob isn’t just justified or understandable, but necessary because little else is available to protect the real victims. Such is the case with Amy Cooper, the woman now famous for making a false police report claiming that an African American man was threatening her life, when in fact he had merely asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, where he was bird-watching.