"Internet Justice"

Serving nearby areas by Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida

If you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need to see statistics to know that social media has taken over Americans’ daily lives. You also don’t need to be told that participation in social media leads to all kinds of consequences, positive and negative.

One of the negative consequences getting more and more attention these days is the trend of social media “shaming” as a sort of mob justice. The most recent example of this phenomenon involved Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who killed a beloved lion named Cecil while on a hunting trip in Africa. This post is not about whether his actions were lawful or ethical (for opinions on that, consult any one of your friends’ tweets or Facebook posts). Instead, this post is about the swift and enormous response from the public via social media.

Within weeks of completing his hunt, Mr. Palmer found that his name and face were ubiquitous on social media. Users of Facebook and Twitter were posting information about his dental practice, his personal life, and his family. People have called for him to be arrested, extradited, and incarcerated.  (Some have called for worse.) Whatever else happens, he can be almost certain that his dental practice will be out of business, at least for a while.

As the author Jon Ronson notes in his recent book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” we’ve seen this before. A woman named Justine Sacco went from a lucrative corporate communications position to jobless and ruined because she tweeted a highly insensitive (many would say racist) joke to about 50 people. Several million retweets later, she earned the dubious distinction of being an Internet pariah. Ronson chronicles other similar stories you may not have heard.

For whatever reasons, people act differently on social media than in ordinary life. It’s hard to imagine that all of these Facebook and Twitter users are as confrontational when they go about their daily routine, but when they go online, they are capable of forming a virtual mob. People who hesitate to use their car horn are now issuing death threats.

So, what does any of this have to do with the law, you ask?

The most relevant point to a personal injury attorney is that social media activity can have a profound effect on what people think of you, well beyond your circle of close friends and family. It is increasingly common for lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit to seek extensive information about a plaintiff’s or defendant’s Facebook account. Sometimes, lawyers go so far as to request a court order requiring a plaintiff to give his or her username and password to opposing counsel so that they can view an unfiltered history. In other words, do not expect anything you put online to be “private,” regardless of your privacy settings. As lawyers, we have seen how innocent posts to social media can be intentionally misinterpreted to paint a plaintiff as dishonest.

Second, even if you have no online presence yourself, and you think all your friends are crazy for being on Facebook, you may wake up one day to find out that something you’ve done in your private life has gotten public attention. If Walter Palmer had killed the lion 20 years ago, he would probably not be a household name, and his livelihood might not have been in danger. Other examples chronicled by Ronson in his book demonstrate how, sometimes, mere questionable decisions that don’t cause anyone (or any animal) harm can still evoke rage online and then snowball to the point of ruining someone’s life.  

Finally, the story of Mr. Palmer highlights the difference between the legal system and what I call “Internet Justice.”  The legal system has codified rules and procedures, whereas social media users can form mobs that act swiftly and without rules, to shut down businesses and ruin reputations. Criminal laws are the result of legislative and Democratic processes – we decide as a society what kind of conduct is tolerable and what is not. Then we decide what kinds of punishment or restitution are appropriate for different criminal acts. We also decide what kinds of defenses may apply to different crimes (for example, self-defense, defense of others, defense of property).  When those laws are applied to particular cases, the public is not always satisfied. Emotionally, we don’t always believe that the law gave us the right result. Still, the law is meant to apply the same to every person.

Internet Justice is more capricious. We as a society did not decide that the killing of a protected lion is punishable by public shaming and forfeiture of a business. But those were the consequences that many people considered emotionally satisfying. Now, there is widespread call for him to be extradited to Zimbabwe, even though most of the people petitioning for extradition probably don’t even know how Zimbabwe law treats this offense. (I certainly don’t.) It may be that Mr. Palmer is only getting what he deserves, but this controversy should still prompt us to think about questions of justice – how consequences are determined and who gets to determine them.

I recommend “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson as a good read, and probably as essential reading for Walter Palmer. In the meantime, Mr. Palmer should hope more than anyone that he is never involved in a lawsuit – that deposition would get ugly fast.