When does community action against an anonymous troll become a lynch mob?

If you’ve been following the progress of Hurricane Sandy and its impact on New York — and the way that Twitter was used as a real-time newswire for many of those affected by it — then you’ve probably heard of @ComfortablySmug, the anonymous account that was criticized for posting fake news reports. The person behind that account is no longer anonymous, however, after BuzzFeed revealed his identity in a sort of public shaming, and now he faces potential legal action for what he posted. This raises the same kind of question as the recent unmasking of Reddit troll Violentacrez: When is it justified to reveal someone’s real-world identity as a punishment for something they did online?

(Note: This question led to some heated back-and-forth between GigaOM staffers in our internal editorial chat room, which is hosted on Socialcast, so for the first time we have posted a condensed version of that internal discussion online)

Just to recap, @ComfortablySmug posted a number of fake news items during the worst part of the storm on Monday night — including what appeared to be news bulletins about Con Edison shutting down power to all of New York and flooding at the New York Stock Exchange. The Twitter account was called out by a number of journalists and other users at the time for posting these fake reports, and then the following day the user behind the account was revealed in a BuzzFeed post to be Shashank Tripathi, a 29-year-old campaign manager for Republican congressional candidate Christopher Wight.

[tweet https://twitter.com/ComfortablySmug/status/263083953152466947]

Tripathi has since posted an apology, and appears to have removed a number of the offending tweets from his timeline. But his actions have clearly had repercussions that go beyond just public ridicule: it’s unclear just how much it has affected his livelihood, but he has resigned as Wight’s campaign manager, and a New York city council member is having discussions with the district attorney’s office about possibly charging Tripathi with a crime for the things he posted. “I hope the fact that I’m asking for criminal charges to be seriously considered will make him much less comfortable and much less smug,” Vallone said.

Did ComfortablySmug deserve to be outed?

In an email, BuzzFeed writer Jack Stuef said that he had no qualms about outing @ComfortablySmug because he was a public figure and his behavior warranted it:

“He was the campaign manager of a major party’s congressional candidate, so if there was going to be any question about outing an average citizen, the point was moot. He was working in the public sphere. Obviously it reflects very poorly on your campaign to have your campaign manager scaring people with willful lies in a crisis situation. And obviously the reason he thought he could get away with such behavior was because he had hidden his identity.” — Jack Stuef, BuzzFeed writer

Could Tripathi be charged and prosecuted for what he did? He definitely could, although — as my colleague Jeff Roberts noted — proving that he deliberately tried to incite panic is likely to be difficult, if not impossible. It’s not even clear that Tripathi was the original source for all of the fake news he posted, most of which I saw posted by others as well, including people who claimed to be watching a fire at the Coney Island Hospital. Should they all be identified and charged with a crime?

Everyone likes to use the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” analogy, but as lawyer Ken Paulson pointed out to Jeff, charging someone with a crime for a couple of tweets amid hundreds of thousands or even millions would be a difficult challenge given the First Amendment. And as a legal blogger noted during the recent furore over the “Innocence of Muslims” video — when the “fire” analogy was used by many as justification for censoring the video — this theory has often been just a cover for censorship, even by its most famous proponent, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

The consensus when I asked this question on Twitter was that Tripathi deserved to be publicly shamed and his identity revealed because he had caused panic during a critical moment, when people were already afraid for their lives and their safety:

[tweet https://twitter.com/MikeIsaac/status/263360635260239872]

Does the punishment fit the alleged crime?

That would seem to qualify as shouting fire, but is Twitter really a crowded theater? And did the few tweets that Tripathi posted really cause panic? For someone whose family members were in the Coney Island Hospital, perhaps — but how many people who fit that criteria would have even seen his tweets? Another complicating factor is the role of Twitter itself: if it is already monitoring and blocking tweets for the German government and others, what responsibility does it bear for transmitting fake news that may be causing public panic? And what duty do other users who retweeted it have?

Sociologist Danah Boyd wrote recently about the unmasking of the Reddit troll known as Violentacrez for his behavior on the site, which consisted of posting and encouraging others to post photos of young women — and in some cases children — without their consent. As she describes in her piece, there are a host of questions raised by this phenomenon: Who decides whether someone should be publicly shamed or not? How do we respond when that impulse becomes a lynch mob, or identifies the wrong person, as happened with the alleged tormentor of bullying victim Amanda Todd?

“More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.”

The most popular response in the case of Tripathi is that he deserves everything he gets because he was “being a dick,” as more than one person described it. But does that still hold if he loses his job, or his family (assuming he has one) or is charged with a crime and becomes unemployable? What if he becomes depressed and jumps off a bridge? Pursuing and “doxxing” (i.e. forcibly revealing someone’s real identity) could be seen as a form of harassment and bullying itself — so when is that equivalent to or worse than the alleged offence that the anonymous person committed?

As Boyd points out, the more we become a networked society and live a large chunk of our lives online, the more we will run into these kinds of dilemmas. Each one becomes a kind of slippery-slope problem, where drawing the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior becomes harder, and the risk of lynch-mob type activity becomes greater. And in some cases, the penalty could turn out to be severe.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Andrea Michele Piacquadio