Brett Graham: The Facebook pulpit

Thursday, September 7, 2017 - 3:24pm

It was, by all accounts, an unenviable afternoon at the Jersey Shore. The usually crowded beach was sparsely populated, thanks in large part to heavy gray clouds, rough waves and a chill uncharacteristic of early August. My family and I were perfectly content, though. None of us were particularly invested in our tans that day. 

Several yards behind us were other patrons who also seemed to be perfectly content: A young couple, maybe recent high school graduates, was engaged in some heavy petting, to put it lightly. They were so affectionate that at one point my grandmother, who could see the display in her peripheral, commented that she had to keep reminding herself to look elsewhere. We shrugged our shoulders, chalked it up to young love and minded our own business.

A few hours later, a middle-aged woman came over to the young couple from about 50 yards away. She up-ended a bag of potato chips and emptied its contents in a circle around their blanket, attracting around 30 hungry seagulls. “You want to hook up on the beach, this is what you get!”

The couple, understandably, was horrified. I was too, and not just because my grandmother is terrified of birds and was now caught in the crossfire of this woman’s misguided vigilante justice. A grown woman had chosen the least mature, most antagonistic way to handle the situation. What was more, some others were offering her mild applause for it.

That is why, I suppose, this otherwise unspectacular beach day stands out to me. I realize now that calling her a vigilante is a misnomer. What I saw from that woman and those who supported her stance was something else entirely. It was a real-world demonstration of a new, ugly category of mob justice — one I'd seen before, dispensed from the Facebook pulpit.

Before expanding on this new platform for populist retribution, one must first recognize how it fits into the already-worn commentary on the need for immediacy in today’s society. “We want X and we want it as fast as humanly possible!” This sentiment is often attributed exclusively to millennials, as if the only people who order from Amazon Prime and watch Netflix were born after 1980, and its discussion usually strikes me as nonsensical. But one doesn’t have to look far to see how our culture has placed a premium on expedited justice.

“Law & Order” never needs more than 45 minutes to reach a resolution, and “Judge Judy” gets it done in just 22. Not to mention judging panels on singing shows, how the “tribe has spoken” and the host of programs that cover real crime (á la “Dateline”). Even cooking shows are obsessed with the idea of a verdict.

The woman on the beach was no different. She felt as though she (or perhaps the beachgoers as a group) had been wronged and immediately sought out a judge, jury and executioner — a dramatic conclusion. Paying no mind to the innocence of the teenagers, nor to the fact that she had presumably completed elementary school and could therefore use her words to communicate, she needed to see the situation rectified now and saw herself as the only one fit to do so.

She was proud of her behavior, and likely relayed her juicy, dramatic story of putting those kids in their place to friends and family the next chance she had (she’d already reiterated her reasoning to half the groups around her). Social media users see and engage in this behavior constantly. Someone posts about their negative experience at a restaurant, a conversation that went south, email or text responses that bothered them (with screenshots for evidence) and waits for the validation in the comment section that what they did was right. As if that will right the wrong. As soon as a like-minded family member, friend or co-worker offers a like or a few words of agreement, the poster moves on, thoroughly pleased with themselves.

The internet, however, is rarely (if ever) a place where justice is served and is much more prone to the obfuscation of facts, intense bias and echo chambers. Those who post do so without a second thought, as they did in the wake of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., last month with Kyle Quinn. Mistaken for one of the neo-Nazi sympathizers in a picture (based mostly, it seems, on the fact that he has a beard), the assistant professor of engineering at the University of Arkansas’s face was plastered across the internet.

He was labeled a white supremacist, subjected to death threats, widespread demonization across Facebook and Twitter and ultimately feared for his family’s safety. Quinn was about 1,000 miles away from the protests and is not (to my knowledge) a racist.

Similar casualties of the Facebook pulpit can be found prominently in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, when Reddit identified not one, but four innocent men as the culprits because no one could wait for the authorities to do their work. We can see this same societal reflex on display when bad things happen to bad people and social media users celebrate the fact that cosmic justice has been dealt. It makes us feel as though the real world is a television series, and the villain has finally gotten their comeuppance.

The question that arises from her actions on that overcast afternoon in New Jersey is not about whether making out on a public beach is appropriate, nor is it about intervention versus nonintervention. The question is what personal sense of authority made that woman get up from her chair? What made her think that her actions were justified? And if my thesis is correct — if this incident was representative of a new brand of immediate, punitive and public mob justice that lives on and festers in social media — who puts the monster back in its box?

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.