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I Was Part of an Online Mob...
Scott Lucas | Photo: Wikimedia Commons | August 19, 2013
And it felt good. But how should we feel the morning after Shih Storm?
By now, most of us are familiar with the saga of beleaguered tech guy Peter Shih. On Thursday, he posted an obnoxious and hateful diatribe about San Francisco and its inhabitants on Medium, a new media startup. The screed quickly garnered him an online beatdown on Twitter, where the hashtag #PeterShihFacts—in which participants accused him of everything from being a Dodgers fan, to purchasing the faulty bolts for the Bay Bridge, to (most horrendous of all) calling our city "Frisco"—crested on Friday afternoon and continued through the weekend.
A chastised Shih posted an apology on Saturday, in which he wrote, "I made idiotic and childish, but worse yet, thoughtless, hurtful and offensive comments that I am deeply sorry about. There are no excuses for my poor judgment, so I make none. I take full responsibility that this mistake was completely my own."
On my personal Twitter handle, I wrote several #PeterShihFacts, a few of which seemed to be relatively popular. Though I didn't start the mob, I certainly carried an especially sharp pitchfork and hot-burning torch. Do I feel bad about that? Did I do something wrong? Not exactly, but in the harsh, sober light of Monday, I am starting to feel differently about my reaction.
There's a reasonable argument to be made in favor of #PeterShihFacts. His public remarks were stupid and hurtful. The response was relatively proportional—speech against speech. The meme instigated no physical violence (that we know of) against Shih, and it was clear that many of the "facts" were supposed to be satirical rather than defamatory. Often, comments that violate social norms (especially ones, like Shih's, that push the boundaries of bigotry and misogyny) tend to produce a pushback from the rest of society. Which is generally a good thing.
But what if the Peter Shih mob wasn't actually good—what if it was just lucky? What percentage of tweeters actually bothered to read the original Shih post before piling on? What if we had misinterpreted what he was saying? What if the game of Twitter telephone had gotten it wrong? What if Shih wasn't a startup founder at all, but just a lowly, disgruntled IT guy? What if he hadn't just moved to the city, but was actually born and raised here, and venting long-standing frustrations about some of our worst civic problems (albeit in douchey way). Social media doesn't employ a fact-checking department, and few retweeters are willing to do their own independent reporting. How can we be sure we weren't lynching the wrong fella here?
Around the same time as #PeterShihFacts was trending internationally on Twitter, another rumor was bounding around the network that RNC Chariman Reince Priebus had called Mitt Romney's election-season comments about "self-deportation" racist. Turns out that wasn't true—and it shows you how easily something can spread on Twitter with no connection to veracity.
Though a situation like that seems easily corrected, online mobs can often do serious damage. Take the case of feminist Anita Sarkeesian. After she announced an online series examining the representation of women in video games, she was subject to an online campaign of harassment, including denial of service attacks, attempts to hack into her email and Twitter accounts, and doctored photos of her released to the web. Although the #PeterShihFacts brigade didn't go nearly as far as that, it's not hard to be worried about the parallels. Printouts of Shih's avatar were seen tacked onto lampposts in SoMA just hours after the Shih Storm began.
Half of why I participated in the #PeterShihFacts game was that I was genuinely peeved at his screed. There's nothing wrong with casting a little public shame on someone whose actions have merited it. But to be honest, the other half of my equation was that I was simply bored on Friday afternoon at work. It's hard to claim any high moral purpose for writing, "Peter Shih had the Maltese Falcon the entire time." It is more than slightly worrisome that instead of napping at my desk or looking at lolcats, I wasted my afternoon talking smack about a guy I've never met before.
Joining the mob, I found, was enjoyable. It was cathartic; a fabulous way to vent righteous anger. It felt good to be part of a group acting in unified outrage. And, I must admit, it was decent for my Klout score: I must have picked up twenty Twitter followers on Friday.
But even the most morally defensible mob is still just that: a mob. "Thoughtless, hurtful, and offensive" can describe the provocation, but if we're not careful, it can describe the response as well.