On 4 October 2012, four Nigerian university students visited the village of Aluu. One of those students was owed money by one of the village residents, so he asked three of his classmates to accompany him and help collect the debt. Shortly after their arrival in Aluu, a rumor spread through the village that the four students were in the village to steal, rather than collect an owed payment. As a result, a mob of enraged villagers attacked the students, stripped them naked, beat them with rocks and sticks, and wrapped car tires filled with burning petrol around their necks—a form of torture called “necklacing”. The killing was shared widely on the Internet, and the case of the “Aluu Four” now stands as a prime example of mob justice gone wrong. The villagers acted on a rumor rather than stopping to find the facts.
Today, mob justice takes on a different face: shame culture. High-profile cases in the hands of the public typically devolve from fact-finding missions to shouting matches. Facts are commonly ignored or twisted by excessive sharing (a la “the telephone game”), or otherwise buried in a deluge of quippy memes and aggressive threats. While it can be funny to see what people come up with on the Internet, there’s a certain ignorance to just how much damage this kind of public lynching can cause—especially when it isn’t apparent if the accused is actually guilty of any crime.
Right now, media is inundated with reports of sexual violence. Celebrities, businessmen, and even elected officials are currently under incredible social scrutiny. These allegations have led to the loss of jobs, divorce, and worse. Perhaps most notably, the UK’s former Labour Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant, a husband and father of two, tragically committed suicide following hysterical allegations by multiple women of his sexual misconduct. Despite maintaining his innocence all the way up until he ended his life, and even though there was no legal trial to confirm guilt, Sargeant was viciously attacked online and off. Death threats were made against him and his family. He was never provided any details concerning the accusations, even despite requesting them in a desperate bid to clear his name. His friends and family—who still defend his innocence—claim he was left “isolated” and “thrown to the wolves”.
Unfortunately, these kinds of incidents are not uncommon. In the Age of Information—and especially during a period in which “fake news” is abundant—there appears to be a tendency to harshly condemn and criticize alleged criminals prior to any actual legal conviction. Before the justice system has time to investigate the facts and a jury can come to a consensus, lives and reputations are annihilated. Families are destroyed. Simply, justice is not served when the mob comes to its own conclusions.
In the case of US Senate-hopeful Roy Moore, who has yet to face a criminal trial for alleged sexual misconduct involving minors, opponents have sprung up calling for condemnation. Memes have been shared in such high numbers that it is impossible for me to quantify them, and many of them are so awful in nature that I dare not share them here. Is Roy Moore guilty? We don’t know. And yet we are willing to label him a pedophile and potentially destroy his life on so-far unfounded allegations.
I’m not saying that I condone sexual misconduct, or even that I support Roy Moore. (Politically and personally, I believe he’s unfit to serve as Senator for a host of other proven issues.) What I am saying: we cannot be so quick to crucify people before those people have had the chance to legally defend themselves. I find it heart-wrenching to consider the consequences if Moore is found undoubtedly innocent in a court of law. In such a case, even despite proven innocence, he would already be branded a pedophile and a child molester by the general public. I would argue it’s probably too late—his life is already ruined.
These are only a few cases, and there is certainly more to be said in either direction. But, I believe we should do our best to remain impartial in such high-profile cases. In America and many other countries, everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence (i.e.: innocent until proven guilty by a court of law). To deny that presumption of innocence is to sway the judgments of the courts and skew any legal consensus. In the case of sexual violence, this can have devastating consequences. Jumping the gun on such cases can give real power to fake claims and set a terrible precedent for the future. But, more importantly, it can mean burying the true pain and hurt of victims, and ultimately delegitimizing the point of such cases: that the victim—not the public—receive the justice they deserve.
Still, it’s not necessary to remain silent on these issues. When high-profile cases pop up in public view, it’s important that the media cover them and we citizens engage in discussion. When it does happen, we should be debating the underlying issues (in today’s cases: systemic sexism, toxic masculinity, rape culture, etc). We should not be discussing the individuals involved in the case. That is for investigators, lawyers, juries, judges, the victims, and the accused. You wouldn’t go to a court room and shout your opinions at the judge from the benches, and so you shouldn’t do so online—especially considering the ease with which information can be shared on the Web.
Allow the facts to speak for themselves. The justice system is never perfect, but it can’t be expected to improve if we talk over it. We must hope that the truth will come to light (as it so often does), and trust that the process—and the Universe—will reward the truth and punish lies.
Otherwise, we are all criminals.
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