Innocent Until Proven Guilty – Except On The Internet

The sum of the crowd’s IQ was far below that of its most modest single member. Mobs have passions, not brains.

Dan Simmons – The Fall of Hyperion

We’ve seen it time and time again. Someone takes to a blog or social media to accuse someone of heinous wrong doing and like two magnetic poles pushing away from each other, the internet splits, polarizes, peoples reputations are destroyed and all without a shred of evidence.

The Michael Arrington case which continues to evolve, is just the latest example of the internet becoming the judge and jury for what truly should be a legal matter, and not reported by reputable sites until the facts are in. It’s a “he said, she said” clusterfuck of emotionally charged endorsements, vilification and witch hunting, that would make the Spanish Inquisition proud.

I’m not going to defend Michael Arrington (he is more than capable of that himself – has lawyered up and gotten the authorities involved), nor am I going to say that Jenn Allen is making false accusations. I’m not even going to attempt to present the possibility of a second side of the story – I’ve done that before and ended up being vilified myself.

Apparently even when arguing with itself, the mob is omniscient.

I find it largely depressing , and shameful, that in the year 2013 technological advances have enabled us to come back to mob justice, public humiliation, and public trials without evidence. True, these “trials” do not have any legal standing, but what need is there for a courts justice when a person’s livelihood and reputation can be dismantled by spending 15 minutes at the keyboard followed by smidgen of social sharing?

Jenn Allen may well be truthful in her claims, and now that Arrington has lawyered up, I truly hope she is, but I will never be able to bring myself to agree with the public naming and shaming of people for criminal activities before they’ve had their day in court.

For every truthful accuser there are two opportunists waiting in the wings, who for financial or simply malevolent reasons would be willing to take the internet and destroy a person’s life in order to get what they want, and the mob will embrace them. Truthful or malicious intent, the mob will embrace all, especially if suggestions of rape or abuse of the fairer sex are levelled. Once such suggestions are made most people appear to lose the ability to reason.

Who should be blame for the behaviour of the mob? The accuser, the accused, the mob itself?

Dispassionately, it would be fair to say that the accusers deserve the blame for inciting the mob, however the bigger blame may well fall to at the feet of those in the media who pounce on such accusations with a fervor that would have made pre- epiphany Jerry Maguire proud to shout “Show me the money!”

This is 2013. Nobody, media outlet or individual, can claim that they didn’t realize that a post to their online audience would blow-up. Nobody can claim ignorance of the type of character assassinations and irreparable damage that  public claim will do, even if it is later disproven in court.

My grandfather used to tell me that there’s no smoke without fire – except that doesn’t hold true, and unfortunately the nature of the emotional mob and of reputation, means that such claims will linger long after one’s demise.

The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.

Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar

I’m not going to name the media outlets that peddle in this dribble, nor shall I name those who through lack of mental capability, or willful ignorance, get incited by the first thing they read online without even asking for the other side of the story.

All I will say, is that I expect better of the media, of publishers, and of people in 2013.

5 thoughts on “Innocent Until Proven Guilty – Except On The Internet”

  1. I respectfully disagree in this particular instance.

    While the initial story does have an element of “he said she said” to it, there has been enough corroboration from other sources to indicate the likelihood of truth to the original allegation. And since the allegations have a material effect on corporate performance at several companies, both large and small, this is a valid story upon which to report. And it’s a valid question to ask why other tech business publications are not reporting it.

    In my mind, this story is comparable to a particular story that was reported in the National Enquirer a few years back. Yeah, the Enquirer – one step above the Weekly World News. And it was a sleazy sex story. However, in that particular case – the John Edwards adultery allegations – the Enquirer got the story right. And since illegal use of Presidential campaign contributions was alleged, it was a newsworthy story.

    Of course, if information comes out that disputes the original accounts, I trust that the publications that you would rather not name will report this also – in other words, that they will exhibit a standard higher than that of Nancy Grace when her allegations about the Duke lacrosse team were proven to be incorrect. Of course, it’s easy to rise above Nancy Grace’s standards. But I digress…

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    1. I totally understand where you are coming from, and I’m not questioning the newsworthiness of the story, although some of the “corroborating reports” have been nothing but hearsay and even denied by those they’ve been attributed to.

      What I am referring too, and I believe you’re partially making my point for me by referring to the Enquirer story, is the mentality of judging and branding someone based on nothing but accusation. If we’re to take news reporting seriously on the internet then it has to rise about the tabloid gutter level and allow everybody the benefit of due process without first judging them in the court of emotional public opinion.

      This applies to ALL people.

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      1. To clarify – while this story may be newsworthy, it should lead is to question what is newsworthy especially in the cases of stories where accusations are made without substantiating evidence.

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      2. Great article, only a couple of things I would mention:

        Mob mentality is a double edged sword, if people find out they have been manipulated into fighting for an unjust cause, woe be to the perpetrator of the falsehood. My point being that in some cases, mob mentality sends people out in all directions looking for the truth. Just as fast as the false information can be spread, the truth can be revealed and distributed. The only evidence I can offer in this regard is the easy-to-whip-up Reddit hive mind. More than once, a seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of rage has been rolled back, and directed back at the accuser, when evidence of what really happened is found. Though, as you argue, sometimes not. It would be interesting to see the statistics on wrongful conviction in the legal world vs internet justice.

        Second, sometimes it is the only recourse after all other’s have been exhausted. We have all heard about a customer wronged by a company who only got justice after a blog post or a youtube video. In the case of the Steubenville rape, it was the only way to get the authorities to act.

        Lastly, I can lay very little blame at the meet of the media in these cases. They should stick to facts, but they should be reporting on this kind of stuff. It is people who need to learn not to jump to conclusions or seek out more information. One side effect on Reddit of mobs finding out later they were wrong, is that users have become much more skeptical when something first comes out. Often it takes independent verification before they sharpen their pitchforks and light the torches.

        I do not want to come off as “supporting mob mentality”, but I would caution against wholeheartedly dismissing it as a net negative as well.

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      3. While I may agree that sometimes it may be the only or final recourse, I cannot help but be concerned about the people who are falsely accused.

        Some studies have shown that as high as 41% of rape claims are false (sticking with that crime as these are the catalyst to the post), however this is an outlier number. The mean in these studies appears to be in the range of 8% to 10%.

        This means that for every 9 people who get accused correctly, there is 1 person getting their life destroyed and the emotional mob really has no mean with which to verify most of these claims.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_accusation_of_rape

        As for the media reporting facts – that’s all well and good, but an accusation is not a fact. Given the potentially large number of false reports, I believe the media has a duty to consider the rights of and potentially devastating damage to the accused as well as the rights accuser.

        Once someone is convicted the media can broadcast it from the mountain tops, but beforehand? Again, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle in the court of public opinion.

        It’s a delicate line and one that’s difficult to know which side to be on. I would still hold however, that accusations made online, instead of through the proper legal channels are not the way to go.

        Even if the accusation is true, then the potential for further legal damage to yourself (you may not win the case if you didn’t take the appropriate actions, and may open yourself up to legal recriminations) is something to be weighed heavily.

        Finally, there is a cultural issue. The more people that publicly accuse people of heinous crimes, the more socially acceptable it becomes to publicly accuse people of heinous crimes without a shred of evidence. That opens the door for a whole new realm of abuse.

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