A sad note that marred an otherwise unseasonably-warm and dry week in Grand Rapids was the death of a blogger’s dog after a careless right turn by a man driving a truck who then left the scene (even though he later admitted to being aware that the distraught owner was trying to flag him down; I also refuse to believe he didn’t know he’d hit something).
The dog’s owner wrote a moving essay about the experience that has touched all of us. He also provided an example of forgiveness and compassion that I’ll think long and hard about for the rest of my life.
There were witnesses to the tragic accident and the reaction of the driver of the truck. As is increasingly the case, those witnesses had access to smartphones and tweeted what they had witnessed. One witness, who I’m proud to call a friend, took action and captured information about the truck and its driver. The truck was a work vehicle, so it was emblazoned with the name of the business – and the witness also managed to get (and tweet) the license plate.
As a dog lover and bleeding heart with an inflamed sense of justice – I eagerly retweeted and re-shared every piece of information I could get my hands on (as did others) in the hope that the news would reach someone in a position to do something about the injustice that had just occurred.
Fortunately exactly that did happen: local news media answered the call, and local authorities were notified. The man who lost his dog even had the opportunity to connect with the driver of the truck and, by his account, both were struck with grief. There is apparently no ill will between them.
The Sound and Fury of Hindsight
At the denouement of the tragic affair, I was surprised when some of my colleagues expressed criticism that anyone would share the details of the event via social media (or worse – re-share them).
What I saw as a justified public service attempting to right a wrong, others saw as defamation. While the actions of everyone that day don’t come close to meeting the legal burden of libel, it’s understandable that some felt trepidation about affecting the future of someone else (particularly a business owner’s livlihood).
Bear in mind I say ALL of this as a diehard civil rights advocate. I’ve manned phone banks, risked arrest, marched, and stood shouting in the freezing cold for the rights that most people take for granted. That is, perhaps, what I find MOST mystifying about all of this – the idea that suddenly others are concerned about the privacy and reputation of others (while allowing so many far greater injustices to be perpetrated on a daily basis).
I’m usually on the other side arguing “innocent until proven guilty” and playing Devil’s Advocate.
Most people have no problem with suspending due process in so many other instances. We click on links to news stories about crime to see the mug shot of the accused perpetrator. We don’t mind that those arrested are paraded in front of the camera in jailhouse garb on TV. Some of us even buy the tabloid newsletters on the counters of convenience stores featuring the mug shots collected each week.
Worse, hundreds of innocent men (rounded up in the hysteria after the 9/11 attacks) are rotting away in US military prisons with no hope of due process in sight; as if that weren’t bad enough – some of them are US citizens who virtually everyone agrees have an inalienable right to due process.
Most people have no problem with Amber Alerts (a close analog of digitally sharing information about an eyewitness account of a crime). I’ll grant that it’s understandable that people would make a distinction between the severity of the situation when the life of a child and the life of a dog.
It’s also understandable that people would make the distinction between when surveillance techniques are used in pursuit of a terrorist and a garden-variety criminal.
The problem is, once this power exists, it will be used by anyone with access to it for whatever they feel rises to the level justifying it.
Just as social media can carry an Amber Alert, it will invariably and increasingly be used to carry word of other crimes. Similarly, the USA-PATRIOT Act started as an extreme measure to thwart an extreme crime but is now being used against “regular” criminals.
This brings me to my next point:
The Confrontation With an Uncomfortable Reality
What seems to be happening is that a bunch of people’s eyes have actually been opened (like for realz) to the power of social media. I guess nearly a decade of books, videos, documentaries, blog posts, and tweets didn’t really sink in: our world has changed – and our social structures and mores will invariably change with it.
The ability of the average citizen to document and share wrongdoing is truly nothing new. Employees of Yahoo have been documenting the shoddy parking jobs of their co-workers for YEARS with the “ycantpark” Flickr tag.
It’s waaaaay too late to arrest the momentum of our technology (not that we should).
The Number of Angels That can Dance in the Hashtag of a Tweet
Less important than the Philosophy 205 “Introduction to Ethics” discussion that followed is the immutable fact that this is the new reality.
It doesn’t matter what “should” have happened – this is how things are going to play out from now on when minor injustices or disputes occur. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We can’t unspill the milk. We can’t bridle the horse and lead it back into the stable.
I, for one, do not believe this new era is all bad. In fact – I see several distinct upsides.
- Empowerment: Never before have individual citizens been empowered to advocate for their basic rights. We can document violations in hi-def and share them instantaneously with the world so that they are harder than ever to cover up.
- Accuracy: Anyone who has ever played the game “Telephone” or lived through Junior High knows exactly what happens to the facts in a rumor. As we relate information orally to each other, the facts become distended or obscured and sensation all too frequently wins out. This is not the case if you retweet something or share it on the news feed of your social networking profile. All of the details remain perfectly preserved in their original form.
- Parity: The accused have more power to tell their side of the story than ever before. In the digital world barrels of ink don’t matter (unless the SOPA or Protect-IP bills pass). Wikileaks can rebut the charges made against it by the Federal Government – and each message has equal access to the public.
The Trust of Society
Despite the power everyone had, the response to the accident that killed the dog was measured.
Yes, personal details about the driver and his business were shared – but that would have happened with or without Twitter. As noted above – the details remained accurate and uninflated.
Though many people have made reference to the unnerving sense that they felt a digital lynch mob was forming – the ultimate outcome was that no harm befell the driver of the truck. Apart from a few expressions of outrage and desire to see the driver punished, none of that came to fruition.
In fact – the sole consequence appears to be a lonely negative review of the man’s business on Yelp.
The system worked.
For anyone who was surprised by what followed the accident on social media, and wary of the transparency it now lends to everyday life – I have a recommendation for you: join/support the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Both organizations are staffed by dedicated and professional individuals who have labored for decades to address the changing world we live in by seeking to first and foremost protect the rights of all while preserving all of the wonderful advantages technology gives us.
As we move forward into this uncertain future – we’ll need organizations like these to ensure we follow the better angels of our nature.