Remember Walter Palmer? Probably not – I had to look up his name on Google before I wrote this. You probably remember what he did roughly a year ago, though. He was the Minnesota dentist who went big-game hunting in Zimbabwe last year and shot a lion that had been lured from a nature reserve.
A local conservation group reported the incident, and while it received scant attention in the African news media, in the United States and elsewhere it became huge news. It caught the public imagination, and throughout social media people were baying for Palmer’s blood, both figuratively and literally. In the end, because of the protests outside his home and office plus the threats online and in other media, the Palmer family had to go into hiding for several weeks to let the fuss die down.
I’m not going to debate the right and wrong of big-game hunting (or any other kind of hunting) here, but the fact is that Palmer did nothing illegal. The organisers of the hunt may have been on the wrong side of the law for luring a lion out of a nature reserve, but big-game hunting is perfectly legal in Africa, and people pay a lot of money every day to do it. In that respect, Palmer was just another customer participating in a rich man’s pastime. What does concern me about this is the way technology has facilitated hostile mobs of strangers in the public shaming and excoriation of private citizens.
Even as recently as ten years ago, an off-colour comment spoken in a public place may have drawn disapproving glances or even a confrontation, but it would have blown over quickly and had minimal impact. Not so now. As Walter Palmer, Justine Sacco and many others have found, thanks to the internet, an unthinking comment or action can have life-changing, and life-ruining consequences (Sacco’s career and reputation were ruined following an ill-advised joke on Twitter). These media storms can also become self-perpetuating. In both Palmer’s and Sacco’s cases, the online backlash became a big part of the story in itself, adding fuel to the fire.
The reason for this post is that his past week I have read Facebook posts by several friends where they wrote about being hassled by friends or even strangers online for one thing or another. The internet allows people, even when they post under their own names, a feeling of anonymity and to some decree irreproachability. We have at our fingertips a tool that gives us access to information and communication like at no other point in history. With that great power, as the old saw goes, comes great responsibility. I think it is worth all of us taking a couple of seconds before hitting “Post” to consider the possible effects of what we say on both ourselves and others.
(Jon Ronson has written an excellent book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, which covers the Justine Sacco story among others. It’s well worth a read and probably the first book to tackle this particular topic.)
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