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Trial by Internet

The Case of Lindsey Stone

If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably will soon. A viral picture is making the rounds on social networks and emails. A woman identified as Lindsey Stone from Massachusetts is shown pretending to scream and making an obscene gesture in front of a sign at Arlington National Cemetery. The sign asks visitors for silence and respect.

How bad could it be? The photo is being circulated with company contact information and the URL for Stone’s personal Facebook page. Some people have even posted Stone’s personal information such as home address and personal phone number.

How could it be any worse? Well, word has it that she is a case/money manager at LIFE, a non-profit organization that cares for disabled adults.

Could it be any worse than that? Word has it that when the picture was taken, she was on a trip with 8 other employees and 40 disabled adults.

How could it be worse than THAT? The person who took the picture was supposedly a director at LIFE.

OK, now you’re just making things up. No, I’m not. In fact, LIFE posted on Facebook that the two employees have been placed on unpaid leave pending the results of an internal investigation. The post also mentions that veterans work on LIFE’s staff, and serve on their board of trustees. People are demanding apologies and that the two employees be fired.

If you think her personal Facebook page will yield any interesting information, don’t bother. It was deleted while I was writing this blog. I don’t know why she didn’t delete it sooner. She kept deleting more and more information, even though diligent bloggers and other members of Team Internet: World Police have screen captures of most items relevant to the incident. The story has now gone international.

As a business owner, I would fire her and the photographer. Both are in leadership roles at LIFE, and this has resulted in internet counterattack behavior that will have lasting consequences for the organization. This picture will float around for months, possibly years, and people will be tying up the phone lines and dumping complaints in the organization’s in box forever. It will cost them valuable benefactors who will make their charitable contributions elsewhere.

However, simply firing these people will not satisfy many of the online watchdogs. They want blood. Among the more creative comments I’ve read were suggestions that Lindsey be eaten alive by alligators, deportation, hanging, punching her “in the babymaker” so she cannot have children, and making her wear this photo around her neck while serving disabled veterans. (I don’t see why disabled veterans should have to suffer through that, but if it’s in the name of punishing the pariah of the week, the internet mafia will consider anything.)

A lot of times, there is no doubt about what these people have done. They’ve taped or photographed it themselves, hoping it will go viral in a good way. In a lot of cases, they are attention-seekers and they are asking for it. They never expect it to backfire, even though we see example after example almost weekly showing how things you thought were funny might come across as highly offensive to the masses.

Individuals are going to keep doing dumb things. Groups are going to keep doing dumber things, because groups are only as smart as their dumbest member.

When my dad came home from Vietnam, people at college spit on him because he was wearing his old army jacket—the only coat he could afford at the time. This is something I will never forgive or forget. But I learned something from that. I learned that it’s easy to follow the crowd and not think things through. It’s easy to mete out punishment, quietly rejoicing in the fact that it isn’t you, even as you help burn the accused at the stake.

The right thing to do would have been to leave comments on the photo telling her what she did was wrong and inappropriate. A couple of thousand comments like that would have driven the point home. The backlash that I have seen is more than enough to have gotten her attention, but it won’t stop with that. The Fire Lindsey Stone page has doubled in “likes” since last night, and is growing by the hour. “All we want is her job,” said the page owner in one post. “And I can taste it!”

What else do they want? How many times will she have to pay before she’s paid enough? What is a proportionate response? And who is responsible for passing judgment and carrying out punishment?

I’ve joined in on things like this, and I’ve been a target of it (albeit on a much smaller scale). Looking back, it’s scary to be the target, and it’s just as scary to be one of the internet police.

Groups like Anonymous and 4chan are especially scary. A Burger King employee posted a photo of himself standing in food to be served to customers. In 15 minutes, 4chan had traced the employee’s location and contacted authorities. Anonymous tracked down the man they believe to have been the person stalking Amanda Todd. They claim to have information proving that the man had a pattern of talking underage girls into taking revealing photos and then blackmailing them.

While I certainly hope authorities will use this information to bring about justice, I also hope that they will stop to verify the information and stick to the rules bringing suspects to justice.

People jump on these things without questions. It’s difficult to predict what people will latch onto and what will go unnoticed. It seems that if you can get the right people to share things in the right places, anything can go viral at any time, and within hours you can have people running after you shouting “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”

It's anyone's guess as to when this will end, or whether we will have to enduire Beer Summit II at the White House to get centers for online retribution to back off.

At some point, one of these witch hunts is going to be based on false or misleading information. The mob with the torches and pitchforks will go after whoever it is, because it isn’t them and it’s fun. Someday they’re going to go after someone who doesn’t deserve it. Someday an innocent person will be hurt or killed because of trial by internet, and that’s when it’s going to get ugly. That’s when the government will have the pretext to start censoring the internet, to read more of your private messages and to take even more control of our lives than ever before.

That’s when the mobs will have blood on their hands and will be looking for someone to blame. Will it be you?

We left our homelands to get away from this kind of thing. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Bill of Rights, which protects Stone’s freedom of speech, and lays down the rules for double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment. It’s not far before we begin demanding the same kind of retribution from the government.

Do you really trust the dumbest person around you to come to accurate conclusions? Or is this a case of logical comeuppance? Like Lindsey Stone, you may never know what hit you. Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, the world may never know. In two days, it may not even care.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Irina November 25, 2012 at 04:17 AM
She deserves everything that comes down upon her. Nasty disrespectful SLOB.
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