The Online Mob Masquerades as a Social Justice Movement
The truth is hard to deduce when a couple’s relationship breaks down, violently, with both sides relating their sides online.
In late July, an unofficial public service announcement about a serially abusive man in Brooklyn began circulating on social media.
The man’s ex-girlfriend had posted to Facebook a shockingly personal, 2,000-word account of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse she claimed she endured during their nine-month relationship.
She shared apparent photo documentation of the abuse—graphic bruises and scratch marks—and outed her abusive ex as a DJ and music producer, exposing not just his full name but also the name of his record label, production company, and band.
She was an anonymous victim whose reason for staying in an abusive relationship was all too common: She loved him.
Amanda (not her real name) cut off contact after discovering he was having unprotected sex with multiple other women.
His infidelity, she claimed, was the tipping point that provoked her to share her story and warn other women about the dangerous “sociopath” she herself once fell for.
When I contacted Jonathan (not his real name), he said he had received multiple death threats since Amanda’s Facebook post went viral. The police weren’t involved, but the mob had already done Amanda’s bidding and reflexively convicted Jonathan on her extrajudicial charges: He was a callous misogynist and abusive predator.
People shared her post on various social media platforms and warned women in Brooklyn to keep an eye out for Jonathan.
I communicated at length with both Jonathan and Amanda after her post went viral, but our exchanges amounted to little more than a frenzied “he-said, she-said” narrative, with both parties claiming victimhood and conveying severe emotional distress.
Their stories were wildly contradictory: He said he wasn’t responsible for the bruises, but that he had gotten involved in a BDSM relationship with her that he wasn’t comfortable with and “felt like my life and livelihood were in danger every day”; she denied that they were in a BDSM relationship and insisted “what he did was knowingly violent and non-consensual.”
The only commonalities in their respective narratives were that they had both loved each other, that the relationship had been emotionally damaging and destructive, and that they were both still suffering from the fallout.
But where does that leave them?
Neither I nor anyone else on social media is in a position to declare guilt or innocence, yet we do so frequently and with righteous certainty, depending on where our biases lie.
Another vituperative battle, featuring feverish accusations of online harassment, played out this week after New York magazine’s The Cut ran a story titled “Is There Any Right Way to Reject a Guy?”
The story focused on a BuzzFeed writer, Grace Spelman, who had been on the receiving end of a series of creepy Twitter and Facebook messages from a man she knew only through Facebook.
Spelman politely rebuffed his initial advances and then blocked him on Twitter and Facebook.
But he persisted in contacting her, his tone shifting from admiring to spiteful in a series of tweets. He then followed up with a private email lamely justifying his repeated attempts to contact her (“I was trying to become your friend so I could help advance your career”) and apologizing for making her feel uncomfortable.
The Cut published it all, including the private email, and sniffed that their exchanges were “emblematic of the inherent difficulties of rejecting men, both online and off. Women are frequently made to toe a line between being polite enough to not set off the suitor, but not so polite that their manners are interpreted as flirting.”
“You just can’t win in these types of situations,” Spelman, who declined to speak to The Daily Beast, told The Cut. “Because you don’t know how they’re going to handle it, you don’t know if you should be afraid or not.”
This seems a stretch. His messages were creepy, but Spelman did not right any wrongs by giving The Cut permission to publish his private email.
His offense seemed relatively trivial—certainly not worthy of a story that essentially shamed him under the guise of social justice: vigilantism-lite dressed up in feminist rhetoric.
To many women’s rights and social justice advocates, there are no “alleged” victims in domestic and sexual assault cases, or incidences of online abuse, that haven’t been adjudicated; there are only victims.
To raise questions about the victim’s story is to blame the victim, apologize for the (alleged) rapist or online abuser, and perpetuate a culture that activists insist already mistrusts (alleged) victims.
But this sets a dangerous precedent in the justice system, and our notion of what constitutes “justice” more broadly.
A faith-based pursuit of justice is especially powerful when backed by a political or social agenda, like women’s rights.
In the wake of the explosive Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at UVa of a woman named Jackie, The Washington Post ran an editorial headlined, “No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims.” (Soon after the story went up, they changed “automatically” to “generally," though the initial use of “automatically” can still be seen in the story’s URL.)
Months later, Jackie’s story proved to be almost entirely fabricated.
Many social justice advocates are mistrustful of the criminal justice system. Indeed, law enforcement and even medical professionals are frequently perceived to be the victim’s enemy—insensitive, skeptical, and re-traumatizing—in domestic and sexual assault cases.
Yes, some victims surely have had bad experiences with medical and legal authorities. And it is a victim’s right to cope with abuse without involving authorities. Justice may not be what they are looking for.
But when coping is outing your alleged abuser online and having your case tried in the court of public opinion, there is no opportunity for justice in the traditional sense.
In its place is revenge masquerading as social justice, and the risk of gross injustice if the person outed is innocent or defamed.
“There’s a fine line between outing someone and cyberbullying,” said Patrick Ambron, an expert in online reputation management and CEO of BrandYourself.com, a service that helps people manage their own online reputations.
One of the most common grievances among BrandYourself.com’s clients is being smeared online by a former significant other. “More often than not there’s a vindictive element to these cases that blurs the line further,” Ambron said.
Vengeance and desire for personal justice may have played a role in Amanda outing Jonathan as an abuser, since the impetus was his sexual infidelity and alleged mistreatment of other women.
“I can handle the idea that this person has inflicted abuse in every conceivable form on me for the better part of a year,” she wrote, “but seeing his utter disregard and disrespect for ANYONE’S life or health… nothing in me can abide by that.”
This is not to say that Jonathan didn’t abuse her, or to doubt that every ugly detail of her story was true. The point is that she outed him online primarily to protect other women, she claimed in her post, and vigilante justice may not be the best way to do this.
Amanda never reached out to law enforcement officials because she had heard “so many nightmare stories about police and DV and rape cases,” she told me. “And honestly I just feel icky about getting involved with ‘the system’ at all, considering all the stories I’ve heard, and because on some level it may make things harder on me.”
She did go to Family Court to seek an order of protection against him, hoping it would come with “court-mandated participation in a batterers’ program,” she said. But she abandoned the idea when it was clear that mandatory program participation “was unlikely to arise from that route.”
So she took justice in her own hands in the hope that she would somehow effect change.
“My abuse isn’t unique, nor are my abuser’s rather stale and overused defenses, nor is the reaction of a disbelieving minority,” she told me, adding that she thinks her post has effected change “insofar as it has sparked discussion.”
“Conversation is where real change starts. Whatever societal factors exist that enable gendered abuse, partner abuse, and sexual abuse to continue at such an alarming rate are not going to change on their own,” she said.
“The shifts in perception and values that will ultimately lend themselves to large-scale changes are not going to come from a top-down approach just the same as they won’t come by relying on the existing systems in place to handle abuse. These are changes that require grassroots-level attention.”
Online vigilantism is certainly a grassroots approach to change, but Amanda is wrong to think that public shaming will drive social progress, no matter how much a person deserves to be exposed.
She may feel personally empowered, but she and her supporters are only deluding themselves in thinking her Facebook post has made the world—or at least Brooklyn—a morally superior and safer place.