Social media lynch mobs
You might have seen lynching in movies: angry mobs of white people, mostly Americans, dragging one or several African-Americans — men, women, even children — to be brutally beaten up, with, in many cases, the victim finally being executed, usually by hanging.
The term “lynching” refers to punishment without trial, the people in the mob reinforcing each other’s hatred and anger. Lynchings are also meant to be public spectacles to instill fear. Not content with an execution, the mob will leave corpses displayed for the public to view.
These lynchings originated in the United States and were almost always racially motivated. The practice is now found in different parts of the world, with several incidents in the last few months in Mexican towns involving vigilante groups lynching suspected criminals, usually in drug-related cases.
In the last two years, there’s been concern raised about a new kind of lynching using the internet and social media. In the online versions, fabricated news is spread about the victim, with intentions varying from pulling a prank, to racism, to a demolition job against politicians.
In other cases, there may be an actual transgression, which is inflated to stoke people’s anger. The point is that punishment is meted out without due process.
I write about lynching today because I have seen the social media lynch mobs at work in the Philippines, and in the University of the Philippines. Students attack other students for alleged crimes with social media posts filled with ridicule, hate and vitriol, which then go viral. The lynching is formidable in the way it can easily involve hundreds, even thousands, of people.
I write today’s column with a particularly heavy heart, because I woke up Sunday morning to early morning text messages that hit me hard: The social media lynch mobs had claimed their first fatality — the suicide of someone implicated in accusations of hazing involving the Sigma Rho fraternity.
These accusations first surfaced a few days earlier, complete with photographs of the hazing and its victims, so one could argue that the evidence was clear.
Indeed, but we had started the administrative proceedings to bring justice. Was there a need for the public shaming that followed?
Lynch mobs work on impatience, sometimes fabricating fake news that will include claims that nothing is being done by the authorities. In November 2018, after violence erupted involving Upsilon Sigma Phi and Alpha Phi Beta, one of our student publications immediately accused the administration of not having done anything about fraternity violence. If these future journalists would have done their homework, they would have discovered we had acted on all eight cases of fraternity violence from 2014 to the present.
In the aftermath of last weekend’s suicide, I immediately issued an appeal for our students, faculty, staff and other concerned parties — I was thinking of our media partners — to refrain from using social media to sensationalize the issue. I was only reiterating our policy for any case of suicide, done partly to reduce the risks of copycat actions and, also, to respect the privacy of the family and the dignity of the deceased.
In this case, though, the appeal was done to remind people that public shaming contributed to the suicide, and needed to stop immediately. I was worried the shaming would not end with his death, that vultures would come in to feast. Indeed, one media group texted asking if I could name the victim, “in confidentiality.” I did not bother to reply.
I am relieved to say our constituents heeded the appeal. A faculty colleague “walked” me through the internet Tuesday morning to show many posts taken down voluntarily, but there were still a few posts left attacking the deceased, standing out in the depressing landscape of internet anger. Condolences had poured in, some from the very people who had attacked him a few days earlier.
I’ve asked Jerwin Agpaoa, our vice chancellor for student affairs, to offer psychosocial counseling for the other frat members accused of hazing, and as I write this, I can imagine some people reacting: Why bother?
Mind you, I have nothing but contempt for fraternities and frat members who do not see the lunacy in creating brotherhood by beating up a potential brod, or attacking other so-called brods simply because they belong to a different frat.
But to set aside compassion for such people, even if they have been flagrantly caught in their crimes, is to replicate their senselessness in hazing and rumbles.
We appreciate the exposés and the whistle-blowers in helping to end impunity, not just in fraternity violence but also in other serious offenses such as cheating. But let’s control the temptation to move from the exposé into a lynching rampage, in or out of the internet.
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