Social Media and The “Lynch Mob”

I have always been interested in the debate concerning social media and its effects on people’s lives. There have been numerous cases of someone receiving offline harassment, threats, employment loss or even violence due to something that originated online. Since 2014 we have had movements like Gamergate come into the woodwork, attacking the supposed corrupting influence of feminism in video games and defending death threats as a manifestation of their free speech. This becomes the crux of the argument about social media and its real world effects. If we have freedom of speech, why should people care what we say about people online or in a video?

Earlier this week, comedian Patton Oswalt criticized Trump in one of his tweets. Real estate agent Tony Brust then responded, “”Oh (bleep), the little troll has an opinion again”. This first comment is insulting and unimaginative, but it is not the tweet that resulted in Brust losing his job. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, Brust decided to bring Oswalt’s deceased wife into the argument: “I’m a psychic and I am channeling his wife’s opinions.”

Once Oswalt’s twitter followers saw this tweet, they also noticed that Brust was using his professional social media to tweet. Users immediately found the link to Jim Maloof realtor’s and began calling the company and posting complaints about Brust’s behaviour. Brust is now out of a job.

People may disagree with me for this, but I see this as a form of poetic justice. Many will be quick to use the free speech excuse, but I find that many people misunderstand what free speech means. Brust did not go to jail for his tweet. That is the crux of freedom of speech, freedom to criticize the government and law enforcement without legal consequences. Freedom of speech does not mean that someone is immune to criticism and consequences from their peers. The government didn’t demand Brust’s resignation, Oswalt’s twitter followers did. Maloof Realty had to distance themselves from the bad press and did so in the most logical way. It is their freedom to choose to protect their reputation and their earnings by cutting off the cancerous tumour.

I also find that people often forget that freedom of speech is a double-edged sword. For example, President Trump said the Hamilton cast was out of line for criticizing Vice President Pence, but he also supported the unfounded allegations that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim. Trump had no problem using his freedom of speech to assert that a President’s birth certificate isn’t valid, but he was also insulted that the Hamilton cast would have go off-script to address his VP. People invoke freedom of speech as an excuse when people express views they do not agree with.

An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama‘s birth certificate is a fraud.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2012

From http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/09/politics/donald-trump-birther/

I make it clear that I don’t agree with bigoted comments, and I don’t criticize someone simply for having the audacity to say something bigoted. I pick apart their argument for inaccuracies and bias. I always thought this argument of freedom of speech vs social media was isolated to teenagers and young adults who were still mentally maturing. If my time as a teaching assistant served as any indication, the next generation has a long way to go. Anyways, debate about this online from the Chicago Tribune to Cracked demonstrates that people of all ages are divided about Brust’s fate. Aside from the freedom of speech argument, some argue that “lynch mobs” don’t help anyone. This complaint also comes across as hypocritical since lynch mobs like Gamer-gate are often supported or defended  (usually with the excuse of free speech as well). It is alright to send death threats to women for their involvement in video games, but it is not okay to get someone fired for cruel comments they publicly made to someone else. I honestly suspect that the people jumping to Brust’s defence either support what he said, or are sympathetic because they often make similar comments online.

Employment is partly based on skill, but should also factor in someone’s character. I wouldn’t want someone like Brust to sell me a house or an apartment. Some may think it is cruel that he lost his job over something so foolish, but that is his problem. Brust is the one who didn’t have enough restraint and foresight to see the consequences of his actions. As the Cracked article explains, studies have found that people with more empathy have a better understanding of actions and consequences. Brust clearly lacks the necessary empathy, and maturity, to realize that his short-sighted tweet took things too far. Why is he worthy of our empathy? Social media is not private. You can make some profile’s visible only to a limited circle of people, but once you engage in an argument or conversation with someone else, the conversation becomes public. If you can apply for a job online, don’t be surprised that you can also lose one online. Public actions, have consequences.

 

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