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The freakout over Harambe the gorilla shows the dangers of internet mob justice

A gorilla at the Toronto Zoo.
A gorilla at the Toronto Zoo.
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The internet is on fire over the death of another animal: Harambe the gorilla. It's the latest example of social media causing the death of an animal to proliferate, enabling all sorts of internet outrage about how this could possibly be allowed to happen. Even before the details were clear, or before the experts chimed in, people around the web quickly decried the gorilla's killing and the events that led up to it.

But now we are reaching the next — and scary — phase of these kinds of stories, in which an internet mob demands that someone pay for the death. Specifically, people are asking for punishment of the parents of the 4-year-old boy who was able to crawl into Harambe's enclosure. They argue that the gorilla's death is really the parents' fault, because the parents didn't pay attention to their kid, and the zoo only had to kill the gorilla once the child snuck in and was put in danger.

In a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures, people are demanding that the parents "be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life" and "actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death."

But it doesn't end at petitions. There are also reports of online harassment against a woman who shares the name of the 4-year-old's supposed mother (Michelle Gregg). The actual mom also appears to have deactivated her Facebook account. Now that her name is out there, this could be just the first sign of the kind of harassment that's to come.

The mother, for her part, said in a now-deleted Facebook post that she made a mistake by taking her eyes off her child. But this has not stopped people's fury, much of which has focused on the mom's claim that "accidents happen" — which many people have interpreted as a disregard for how much danger she put her child in. So they have called for the government to investigate her and potentially tear apart her family, and even harassed people who have nothing to do with the event besides sharing a name.

This should stop before it goes further. While all of us can agree that Harambe's death is tragic, we have no indication that this was more than a tragic one-off accident on the mom's part, and ruining other people's lives or tearing apart families based on a narrow view of one event is not how we're supposed to deal justice.

But sadly, this type of mob justice seems to be turning into the norm every time people find a story to get angry about.

Internet mob justice is becoming the norm for viral stories

A lion. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It would be one thing if the reaction to Harambe's death were the only instance of mob justice potentially damaging people's lives. But we have seen this before: In previous cases, internet mobs have reacted angrily to certain stories or movements by harassing people, threatening their lives, and even ruining their livelihoods.

The most recent example was the death of Cecil the lion, when an American dentist, Walter Palmer, hunted a widely beloved lion. With disregard for how it might impact his employees and family, an internet mob quickly went after all aspects of Palmer's life.

Max Fisher wrote for Vox at the time:

Web users uncovered Palmer's personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice's public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.

This should look familiar: It is the same set of tactics that has been used in online harassment campaigns such as the "Gamergate" movement that targeted women in technology, or the seemingly endless online harassment conducted against female journalists. It is a growing trend of internet mob justice, one that often bleeds into real-world harassment with real-world consequences.

As Fisher noted, these kinds of tactics were widely seen as unacceptable when it came to Gamergate. But when it came to defending Cecil the lion, because so many agreed that it was outrageous that Palmer had killed Cecil, the tactics became acceptable.

While some form of punishment may have been acceptable for Palmer, that is not for a mob to decide. In our civilized society, this is supposed to be left to the formal criminal justice system.

Mob justice is not justice

The US Supreme Court. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The fundamental problem with mob justice is that it's prone to randomness. As Fisher described it for Vox, "It treats justice as a sort of random lightning bolt from the sky; one is reminded of the vengeful but arbitrary gods of Greek or Roman lore."

People are calling for someone to be punished for Harambe's death. But the internet mob has widely ignored other cases in which animals needlessly die. And it doesn't pay much heed to animals that are suffering in negligent zoos or farms right now, in some cases until their very sad deaths.

Mob justice also tends to overlook issues that are, frankly, more important. Harambe's death is sad, but it's not even close to the most tragic thing that happened in the past week. Just over the weekend, four people died and at least 53 others were wounded from gun violence in Chicago. Yet the internet mob does not, currently, seem to be in a fit of rage over those tragedies — even as there's evidence that many of these killings go unsolved.

The selective, random attention is not how justice is supposed to work. Justice works best when it is swift and certain, the punishment is proportional to the crime, and the defendant gets a chance to make his or her case. That is why our justice system is, in theory, supposed to evaluate someone's crimes — and the punishment they deserve — with objective factors, and use several checks and balances, such as juries and appeals, to make sure someone is treated fairly.

Mob justice denies almost every aspect of this process. The defendant's case is almost never heard, or at least not taken very seriously. There is no check to the vicious online harassment that almost immediately takes hold on the internet, even if it represents an excessive punishment. And who is targeted is almost entirely random, based solely on what story happens to go viral and trigger the mob.

Mob justice can't do any of these things, because it's not supposed to. The goal of the internet mob is to seek vengeance — and that means doing so by whatever means are deemed necessary.

But the checks of the formal justice system are there for a reason: They help prevent cases in which innocent people are falsely blamed and punished.

Those checks may have, for example, prevented harassment against the woman who shares the name of the mom whose 4-year-old crawled into the enclosure of Harambe the gorilla. Or in another case, when users on Reddit decided that a young man named Sunil Tripathi had carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 — and targeted the man's family with hundreds of threats and phone calls, even though Tripathi was not the actual culprit of the bombing.

These are events that should worry all of us. After all, if you're caught on video doing something that's perceived as wrong and it happens to go viral, you could be the next victim, whether you deserve the punishment or not. And there won't be any checks to help you.