Privacy experts call them “Little Brothers.”
They are self-appointed citizen avengers who tattle on their peers, a whole tribe of village vigilantes who do the on-the-ground work for Big Brother. It’s been a problematic month in the nation’s capital for local avengers.
There was a furor over a Little Sister who posted a photo publicly shaming a uniformed Metro employee who was eating while riding a Metro train. That was followed by anger over her motives and the motives of the folks who supported her. It was mostly about race.
Now the D.C. Council is considering a pilot program to grant a troop of select citizens the power to issue parking tickets.
What could possibly go wrong with that, right?
People like me, who have at least one 4:01 p.m., $100 rush hour ticket, believe D.C. already does parking enforcement just fine, thank you. It’s usually the most efficient operation in the government.
A lot of us wonder whether this has anything to do with the city’s declining parking ticket revenue, thanks to mobile parking apps.
But let’s also acknowledge that parking wars in the District can get ugly.
It’s infuriating and dangerous to have cars parked in bike lanes, bus lanes and crosswalks — the violations citizen avengers would be targeting in the proposed pilot program. I live on Capitol Hill and have circled my block for an hour more than once after a Costco shop, past scores of Virginia (mostly) plates overstaying their legal right to park on my street, keeping me from accessing my own home.
I’d be hammering away at them if I had parking citation power, and it would feel soooo good.
That’s the problem.
As Batman taught us, citizen avengers can get way too personal, way too fast. But that hasn’t stopped governments from creating them.
In California, an app offers a $5 bounty to citizens who snap photos and license plates of folks texting and driving. And in New York, vigilant civilians get a 25-percent cut of tickets they issue for vehicles they can catch idling.
This is supposed to be about a moral imperative — safety or the environment or a nicer community.
But history has also taught us that this can go terribly wrong. The scars and resentments of this kind of citizen tattling run three generations deep in my family, when the communist regime in Czechoslovakia corrupted families and communities with Little Brother tactics.
But how do we begin to police citizen avenger motivations?
We still don’t really know why Natasha Tynes became a Red Line Ranger, snapping a photo of a uniformed black Metro employee in violation of the train’s no-eating law and posting it on social media.
“When you’re on your morning commute & see @wmata employee in UNIFORM eating on the train,” Tynes tweeted. “I thought we were not allowed to eat on the train. This is unacceptable. Hope @wmata responds. When I asked the employee about this, her response was “worry about yourself.” @unsuckdcmetro”
She tagged the regional transit agency as well as the anonymous Twitterman superhero, @unsuckdcmetro, who has spent years being an avenger for aggrieved Metro and bus riders in the region.
Tynes got a response. But probably not the kind she was after. The public backlash was swift. The Jordanian-American writer was flamed on social media for shaming the woman. It got racial, it got personal, it got ugly. The crush of readers, rather than Big Brother, decided what Tynes’s motivation was.
And now Tynes, an author and media strategist who has written for The Washington Post’s parenting blog and has managed media for the World Bank, got axed by the publisher and distributor of her first novel, thanks to that tweet.
Tynes hasn’t spoken to anyone about it. But in her swift judgment, she was lacking context.
The transit workers union said the employee was rushing to another assignment and because she has no break room, she had to eat en route if she wanted to be on time and partake in basic, human sustenance. Tynes didn’t have the full story before going after the woman.
And then it got even weirder over at @UnsuckDCMetro. The author of that Twitter account has been at it for a decade, going after transportation authorities and broadcasting other citizen complaints.
Just about all the media folks in town, including The Post, have spoken to him, and we know who he is. But we’ve accepted his request for anonymity, granting him the masked superhero role. He punches — for better or worse — where we often legally and ethically can’t.
Unsuck ardently defended Tynes, even as her publisher said her act smacked of racism.
“We do not condone her actions and hope Natasha learns from this experience that black women feel the effects of systematic racism the most and that we have to be allies, not oppressors,” publisher California Coldblood said in a statement on Twitter Friday.
And the flaming followed, as some longtime followers of Unsuck said they were tired of what they saw as an increasing and deliberate pattern of criticizing black employees and black riders on the Twitter feed.
DCist reporter Rachel Kurzius talked to him last week and said she wanted to name him in a story about his work.
He hung up on her, blocked her on Twitter and launched a smear campaign against her, DCist and WAMU 88.5, which owns the online publication.
He urged others to join him.
They did. He posted pictures of her. He tweeted “snitches get stitches.”
This morning, Kurzius published the story and named the author.
We can note the irony that Mr. Unsuck regularly bullies Metro employees online and cloaks himself in the super-conservative foundation Judicial Watch when he makes Freedom of Information Act requests or files a lawsuit. This is in the name of accountability. Bravo. But should this Little Brother be held accountable for his motivations, too?
It gets murky, fast. And creating an army of Parkingspace Petulas would be the last thing this city needs.