I’m in post-vacation tab-clearing mode, catching up on interesting articles published while I was semi-unplugged for a week. One in particular that merits attention is this piece by Terrence McCoy in the Washington Post on July 16. It’s on a topic I last wrote about here, when I called social-media shaming of crime suspects the “21st Century pillory.”
My starting point for that post four months ago was mugshot-heavy news posts that turn the traditional newspaper police blotter item into a high-profile target for trolls and haters who lack all sense of proportion, empathy, or due process. (As an aside, I found novelist Megan Abbott’s essay in Sunday’s New York Times about the appeal of mugshots in popular culture engaging and thoughtful, but frustrating in its blizzard of words speculating about — but never bothering to report on — the crimes and reputation of Jeremy “#hotfelon” Meeks.)
McCoy’s examination of the social-media shame game walks us through the case of Georgia’s Leanna Harris. Her husband Justin Harris is charged in the death of their son Cooper, the toddler who died after Justin left him in a hot car for hours. McCoy looks at the role played by journalists (and “journalists,” with scare quotes meant for Nancy Grace) and the social-media mob:
The Internet gives its users almost unfettered capacity to shame strangers without fear of retribution. Some of them, Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain told the New Yorker, are those “who think they’re the Bloodhound Gang and want to solve the case.” Members of Reddit belong to this cohort; after the Boston bombing, some built an unsubstantiated case against one young man. “By the time people have torches and pitchforks, the system has gone wrong,” Zittrain said.
Others simply shame for shaming’s sake. The urge isn’t new. But “now, instead of making norm violators run around wearing a big red A on their chest, we make Facebook pages that exhort people to “LIKE THIS IF YOU THINK HESTER PRYNNE IS A DIRTY SKANK!” wrote researcher Kate Miltner of the Social Media Collective. “Shaming is a tool that people use for all sorts of reasons — not only to enforce norms, but to feel superior, exact revenge, make a joke.”
A glance at the comments on practically any crime news story, particularly in high-profile controversies such as last Sunday’s Walt Bogdanich investigation of another college-rape scandal, reveals a deep reservoir of citizens prone to snap judgments that merely echo their preconceptions about human nature and politics. Why bother reading those long stories when we can tell you what happened based on … something we think we might have heard about it? Facts not-so-firmly in hand, we now can commence the sermon.
What in us prompts such moralizing, and this certainty that we know the facts before they’ve been developed in full? What satisfaction do some among us gain from denouncing sinners and sin? They pretend to be advocates for victims, but their energy seems to spring instead from righteous indignation over misdeeds; a zeal to see miscreants (real or imagined, proven or not) summarily punished and banished.
What to do? We can’t change human nature. And evidently the ubiquity of social-media “discourse” will always be with us. So the only antidote I can imagine is responsible, careful, factual reporting; resisting the carnival-barker impulse and instead calmly, cautiously laying out what’s known, not known yet, and possibly never knowable about any given case.
A fella can dream, can’t he?