The rise of the social-media vigilantes

The rise of the social-media vigilantes

September 4, 2021 0 By Rick

Let me begin by defining vigilante. A vigilante is an individual (or group) who investigates and punishes perceived offenses without legal authority. It’s a self-appointed doer of justice. Most of us like to think that we live in modern countries where people respect the rule of law and due process. Things are organized and everyone is innocent until proven guilty – right? And everyone is entitled to a fair trial – right? At least that’s the way I remember things. Well, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s still true in this day and age of “woke warriors” and the “cancel culture,” terms I had never heard until a few years ago. I keep reading about people who have lost their careers, jobs, friends, colleagues and income. Horrible criminals, you’re probably thinking. On the contrary, most of these people have broken no laws or rules. So, what hideous things have they done? They have either broken social codes or have been accused of breaking them, and it doesn’t really matter which. The social codes I’m talking about can deal with sex, behavior, race or humor. Maybe they cracked a joke that was perfectly acceptable a few years or even a few months ago. There’s no doubt that some have made terrible errors of judgment. But there’s also no doubt that some have done nothing at all. And that’s where the lines get blurry. It’s tough to tell who is guilty and who isn’t. How can we prove our innocence? How can we defend ourselves from these self-appointed individuals who seem to thrive at the all-you-can-eat buffet of perceived offenses? Have we lost our right to self-defense?

Reverse burden of truth
It all comes down to how we interpret and remember things. Who hasn’t seen a movie, read a book or savored a dish that they thought was incredible only to hear other people “poo-poo” their opinion? The examples I just gave aren’t controversial, and we can live with these differences of opinion. But happens when these differences in memory, interpretation or opinion involve important issues? That’s when social-media vigilantes rear their ugly heads. They cast aside our rights to trials, courts and witnesses. The alleged “perpetrators” face a reverse burden of truth – not innocent until proven guilty but guilty until proven innocent. And what’s worse, these alleged crimes don’t seem to have a statute of limitations! What the heck is going on? Online vigilantes, often hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, jump to conclusions, pound out verdicts, push – in many cases – poorly-researched arguments and dish out sentences on Twitter, Facebook and other forums. They have claimed the role of judge and jury for themselves and are quick to demand immediate retribution. The social-media vigilantes don’t care. They don’t need to examine the evidence or listen to witnesses. Instead, they pronounce you guilty and sentence you to what could be a lifetime of shame for something that, in many cases, isn’t even close to a crime. Granted, some people are guilty, but they still have the right to a trial and due process as stipulated by the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? Are we moving toward systems that the old Soviet Union once used and China and Russia still use?

No laws
As far as I’m aware, we don’t have any laws (yet) that dictate what authors, journalists or professors can say. No single party or government wields the power of censorship in the US and most of Europe (sadly, though, some European countries seem to be moving in that direction). Yet, any of the numerous vigilantes (cyber, peer, workplace, etc.) seem to have shouldered the censorship responsibility, causing people to be frightened of how a comment might look when taken out of context and spread on Twitter or other forums. In fact, I’m probably going out on a limb by writing and posting this. I’m running the risk of offending the social-media vigilantes. But as I’ve written before, I’m flat out of fucks to give (OMG, he used the “F-bomb!”). So, what would likely happen if I was accused of breaking a social code and offended someone? It doesn’t matter whether I did or didn’t. If I were a celebrity or an important or successful person, which thank God I’m not, the social-media vigilantes would be chomping at the bit to tear into me. I would be in for a veritable shitstorm. No one would talk to me. No one would call me. I wouldn’t be able to work. I would be what the world of diplomacy calls Persona Non-Grata.

No longer
definition of what society considers acceptable has radically changed in the past few years. What once was OK has been relegated quickly to the dustbins of history, making it tough to keep track of what’s kosher and what isn’t. Once upon a time, professors used to have their students over for dinner and other events. Students used to be able to discuss personal problems with their professors. Conversations between people who have different statuses can now focus only on professional matters or strictly neutral topics. And God forbid you should mention anything sexual, even in an academic context. If you do, you’re doomed. And what about our social rules? Look at how much they have changed. So, what about professors who used to date and even marry their students? And colleagues who used to drink together after work and sometimes go home together? Good Lord, imagine that.

Zero tolerance
Even constructive criticism that was once normal in newsrooms and academic seminars is now as unacceptable as farting in public. I believe the level of people’s tolerance for differing opinions has dropped to zero. People get offended for not hearing exactly what they want to hear. They get uncomfortable. They get their feelings hurt too easily. But the feeling of discomfort is subjective. Anything that can have two meanings is subject to interpretation. As the saying goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” As I see it, the problem is that a cottage industry seems to have developed that focuses on weeding out people who make other people uncomfortable. Hmm, the Spanish Inquisition comes to mind. Social-media algorithms encourage anger and emotions, using likes and shares to push people to feel and display outrage. Take Twitter, for example.

Twitter vigilantes
Twitter doesn’t check facts or provide context. How could it with only 280 characters permitted? And don’t forget that everything you put on the internet is never lost. There’s a record of every error, mistake or clumsy metaphor you ever made. It’s all there if the social-media vigilantes are out to get you. Nobody is safe! We live in an age of Zoom, cellphone cameras, miniature recorders and other forms of cheap surveillance technology, which means your comments and mine can be taken out of context. This form of vigilante justice can be used by anyone for any political or personal reason or so it seems. What happened to the guardians of liberal and democratic ideals and the belief that all ideas deserved an equal hearing? 

A place of discussion
What happened to the idea of creating a place where different ideas could compete and be tolerated? What happened to the idea that students should be exposed to competing points of view? Today, people avoid discussing anything too sensitive for fear of being mobbed or ostracized or fired without due process. Anonymous reports and social-media vigilantes, not the reasoned judgments of peers, will shape the fate of individuals. Writers and journalists will fear publication. Universities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to promoting student comfort and the avoidance of social-media attacks. We will become a bland and mediocre society. We will no longer enjoy democratic principles like the rule of law, the right to self-defense, the right to a just trial or the right to be forgiven. It will all just fade away. Is that where we’re headed? I certainly hope not. Well, there you have it. I’ve ranted and raved about what I consider to be a growing problem. Whether I’m right or not doesn’t matter. Some people are going to be offended, pissed off or both. And that’s the way it should be. A healthy exchange of opinions and ideas shouldn’t hurt anyone. It’s what democracy and freedom of speech is all about. Unfortunately, it seems that social-media vigilantes define freedom of speech as the right to say only what they want to hear, believe in or are comfortable with.