Multiple phone cameras capture every public spectacle, while online hordes hunt down anyone posting offensive content.

The 2013 Edward Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA, along with other intelligence agencies, were mass-spying on the public through their phones and computers. Though the explosive revelations took a while to digest, it has become apparent that the public is just as efficient at surveilling and punishing itself.

Take Sunday night’s shooting for example. Details are still emerging, but it appears that some deranged lunatic shot and killed dozens of people. Someone working at CBS decided to post on Facebook that the victims did not deserve her sympathy because they were likely pro-gun. Enough people complained about it, and she was fired the next day.

After August’s far-right rally in Charlottesville, complete with Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia, dozens of attendees were revealed to the internet. Photos and videos of the men did the rounds on social media, and many of their identities were quickly exposed. Fired from their jobs, removed from their universities, and disowned by their families, it showed that even in the perceived-safety of a crowd, individuals could be identified and brought down. When those who opposed the rally took it upon themselves to topple a Confederate statue and pose in front of it, they were later identified online and arrested by authorities.

It is also possible for previous, unrelated actions to come back to haunt someone if their online fame reaches a large enough audience. A photo of a Muslim woman taking a selfie in front of an anti-Muslim demonstration in Belgium last year quickly went viral. However, after people combed through her Twitter feed and past anti-Semitic posts came to light, she deleted all her social media accounts and issued a public apology.

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These are just a few examples of what can happen to those who mass-offend. But all too often in cases of mob justice, there is collateral damage. Perhaps due to the perception that the punishment did not go far enough, individuals take it upon themselves to go after the family members of those facing public scrutiny. Death threats and harassing phone calls against the families of those caught in the public eye are common, and it is difficult to stop once it starts.

There are also cases where an online mob misidentifies the wrong-doer. In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston bombing, Reddit users falsely-accused a man of being the culprit. His family was harassed, while his body was later found in a river of an apparent suicide. It was unclear if the incident prompted the man, who had already been missing for a month, to kill himself. What is concerning is that a grieving family was bombarded by a faceless, decentralized, manic entity, before it disappeared as quickly as it had manifested.

This type of collective self-righteousness has helped evolve the way we police our society. In authoritarian countries, wrong-think is often punished by the government. In western countries, we dissect and present the evidence to corporate and social media, so we can all join in on delivering what we feel is the proper sentence. If their actions are illegal, then the case is handed over to the authorities as well.

There are a few reasons behind this phenomenon. One is that the internet has given every individual a voice. When combined with others, it becomes another nail in the coffin of someone who we judge to have committed wrong, and it is addictive. Until it happens to yourself, it will always feel good. Another reason is that our political climate has become so polarized that we are stuck in a never-ending game of tit-for-tat. It has become paramount to get the other side in trouble by whatever means necessary. The fact that groups of people can work together around the world has made the practice all the more efficient.

Finally, our social media presence is heightened by controversial content. We are competing for the most likes and views, forgetting that there could be an equal bunch of people who share the exact opposite opinion and are willing to confront us over it. I’m not saying that some don’t deserve to be fired or shamed for what they post online or get caught doing. But the desire to offend often results in a competition where whoever is the angriest and most-offended seals the offender’s fate. There is no easy remedy for this state of affairs, and it seems to be getting worse.πŸ”·

(Cover: Flickr / Sam Felder - Banksy.)