Social media making it easy to form online lynch mobs

In the aftermath of the racial violence of Charlottesville, Va., the Twitter account, Yes You’re Racist, has invited its audience to dox the families of white supremacists by publishing names. It’s all very wink-wink. It doesn’t instruct people to make life miserable for family members. It doesn’t have to.

“They’re not wearing hoods anymore — they’re out in the open,” Logan Smith, the man behind the account, says. “And if they’re proud to stand with KKK members and neo-Nazis and anti-government militias, then I think the community should know who they are.”

And do what?

It “outed” a Fargo man who attended the rally, prompting threats to family members, his nephew told the Fargo Forum. And so his father issued a statement, essentially disowning his son. No doubt having a Nazi for a son is painful enough without being compelled to publicly apologize for him.

“Never in my lifetime did I remotely think I would vaguely defend the rights of a possibly very hateful person,” David Clayton Wills, a visiting professor at New York University, tells NPR. He’s black and Jewish, the network points out.

For Wills the historical parallel is Nazi Germany. Wills says the Third Reich encouraged citizens to name people they thought were enemies of the state. “When that became a power that your neighbor could execute or your neighbor could use against other people the power became unchecked.”

Wills says all kinds of people began to get caught up in the drag net of laws and declarations of enemies. Wills knows that social media activists are still very far from the evil that was the Third Reich. But, he thinks maybe people should take a deep breath and think before they press the send button with someone else’s name in the message.

And it’s also important to remember that a picture doesn’t tell the whole story; it can be photo-shopped. Someone could have an ax to grind and try to make it look like an individual is a racist.

Smith says he’s willing to make a mistake.

“Ever since the days of the KKK burning crosses in people’s yards, they depend on people remaining silent” Smith says. “And no matter the risk I’m not going away.”

“I’m not trying to get anybody fired,” Smith tells the Raleigh News & Observer. “I’m not contacting anybody’s employers. But you know, if someone goes to a white supremacists’ rally and their employer sees them, then that’s their prerogative – and that’s something they probably should have thought about.”

“Nobody likes to get death threats, but intimidation is how these people work,” he said. “It’s how they’ve worked from the days of the KKK burning crosses in peoples’ yards and in Nazi Germany. By giving in to their intimidation tactics, that’s how they win.

From the archive: Journalism and the lynch mob mentality (MPR NewsCut)