Forget punching Nazis. The preferred way to deal with a racist now is to find out his name and plaster it all over the Internet.
The latest bigot trending on Twitter is a man digital gumshoes have identified as Manhattan lawyer Aaron Schlossberg. They say he’s the guy who launched into an anti-Latino rant at a sandwich shop after he heard employees speaking Spanish, and eventually threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The users who named and shamed the offender soon discovered he was something of a veteran chauvinist: His previous forays into public pigheadedness, they say, include shouting down someone on the street for being a “ugly f–––king foreigner” and shouting “you are not a Jew” at Jewish people.
It’s hard not to shudder with schadenfreude at seeing someone so obviously despicable answer for what he has done. The Yelp listing for Schlossberg’s law firm was flooded with negative reviews (and labeled a “Spanish restaurant”), and now local officials have filed a complaint with the state court disciplinary system. But this man and his mass judging are also part of a trend, and it’s worth asking where that trend is taking us — as well as how we got here in the first place.
Internet vigilantism has been around for a while, whether it’s hacktivism from groups like Anonymous or doxxing by netizens who reveal private information about some enemy or another they’ve made online. But after last summer’s violence in Charlottesville, tactics migrated from the corners of the Web to its center. Accounts such as @YesYoureRacist posted photos of white supremacist demonstrators on Twitter and asked followers for help identifying, and they got results.
Just not always the ones they were looking for. The post-Charlottesville outings provoked more controversy than this week’s takedown because they affected not only the men targeted (at least one was fired, and one was disowned by his family) but for innocent parties, too. An egregious example was a professor who runs a wound-healing research laboratory who had nothing at all to do with neo-Nazis. He was more than 1,000 miles away when the protests took place, but his beard and build were enough to mislead online observers. The debacle harked back to crowdsourced attempts to catch the Boston Marathon bombers immediately after the attack that cast multiple darker-skinned Americans as mass killers based on little more than conjecture.
Mislabeling supposed lookalikes isn’t the only threat from amateur sleuthing. Families can get caught in the fray if an address is disseminated online. Others unlucky enough to have the same name as a suspect may also bear the brunt of Internet-inspired ire — just as a Brooklyn chef named Emma Gonzalez has found herself at the mercy of far-right crusaders confusing her with the Parkland shooting survivor and anti-gun activist.
When journalists report on bad actors, we like to think we operate according to a set of standards that governs what information makes it into our reports. Professional judgment, plus our accountability for what we publish, ideally encourages greater discretion. The same goes for groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which compiles dossiers on extremist organizations and exposes their activities. But the same isn’t true for everyday people who may want to do the right thing, but who haven’t necessarily considered the consequences.
Of course, catching a reprehensible viral racist is different from making a totally innocent individual’s private life public simply because of who he or she is — LGBT, or Muslim, or, in the case of Gamergate, a woman. There’s also a difference between linking to someone’s website and scrounging up sensitive information such as a credit card number. And between naming someone so you can sic harassers on her and exposing someone so that elected representatives can kick off official processes, the kind that Schlossberg now faces.
But although the lines may seem clear in a case like that of the viral racist, they blur awfully easily. And if the new norm is to track down those who break our moral codes whenever possible, we won’t always manage it as cleanly as those who wrote up this week’s profile in infamy. (Shaun King of the Intercept, a writer as well as an activist, led the charge.)
Networks such as Twitter give people a power they’ve never had before at a time when those they’ve been told to rely on seem so often to fall short. For every racist in a restaurant whom the online masses excoriate, many more whistle through their days unperturbed. No one has managed to change that yet, so now some everyday folks have taken it into their own hands. Still, it’s important to remember the risks. Those who spearhead these missions ought to take care that the wisdom of the crowd doesn’t turn into mob rule.