Social media has given everyone with an opinion the power of both anonymity and number.
In the past, you could clutch your pearls in one hand and write a scathingly brilliant Letter to the Editor in another. Now you can join forces with like-minded people you never met, light your electronic torches and set out to kill the monster in the castle.
Of course, you first have to create the monster.
Over Memorial Day weekend, one such monster was created and destroyed within a matter of hours. We all remember Amy Cooper, the New York City woman who, when confronted about letting her dog roam unleashed, called the police and made a false report about an “African American” man threatening her life. She was lying. We know she was lying because her alleged abuser, a mild-mannered bird watcher named Christopher Cooper, got her on film. Thank God he did. A few reasons: The Scottsboro Boys. Emmett Till. Susan Smith. This time, this particular white woman lied on tape. So, thank God.
There is very little to defend about Cooper. She tried to use her privileged position in society to do real-time damage to an innocent man. The outrage was justified, and even seems quaint in those pre-George Floyd moments before the potential harm to a man in Central Park was violently displaced by the fatal harm to a man in Minneapolis. At the time, those “weeks that feel like years” ago, I said that Cooper should go to jail. She endangered the life of a man who posed no threat, because she could.
But Cooper did not deserve to be destroyed by the torch-bearing mobs. She is a human being who made a horrible mistake. I’d even concede that “mistake” is too kind a description. She committed a crime.
This, however, did not make her a monster, despite the gleeful campaign of the social media mobs to twist her into that caricature. She did not deserve to have her name and private information doxxed, her livelihood stripped from her, strangers calling for her to be raped or killed, all sorts of vile things being said that will reverberate forever on the internet. If you think that this is okay, and that we can define a person by one vile act, one captured moment, one unjustified, nauseating, selfish and yes - racist - act, then please be prepared to live each moment of your own lives as if a film crew were following you around.
And that’s not an idle threat, or empty suggestion. People are now walking around with their iPhones and other portable recording devices, playing “gotcha” with philosophical enemies. I’m not talking about folks filming instances of criminal activity, or even trying to document what they think is a bad arrest or brutality on the part of the police (which, more times than not, is not).
I’m talking about private citizens using their cameras to capture other private citizens at their worst moments, or doing things that the pseudo Steven Spielbergs think are wrong. And then, these photographic storm troopers, these paragons of civic virtue, post their recordings to the internet, and they go viral, and then people lose their jobs, their friends, their reputations and their privacy. It is a very effective, 21st century version of throwing suspected witches in the river, and hoping that they sink as proof of their innocence. Only with those viral “gotchas,” innocence is impossible to establish because the damage to reputation is already done.
Last week, a Philadelphia city worker was filmed removing “Black Lives Matter” posters from a playground, and lost his job because he was not deferential enough to the movement. A beloved police captain in South Philadelphia lost his job because some irate freelance journalist made a video complaint about how he was being mistreated by the so-called “vigilantes” at Marconi Plaza. Others have lost livelihoods, had to close their stores, been kicked out of schools, removed from faculty positions, and probably even had their engagement rings returned to them.
The electronic Stasi, the digital KGB, are roaming the streets, waiting to catch you at your weakest moments. The social justice warriors need nothing more than a fully charged battery to help destroy you, if you let them.
Don’t let them.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.