Beware the Internet Lynch Mob

“Pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.” -John Jay

A few days ago, a petition showed up on my Facebook:

In a moment of indignation, I went to Change.org and signed that petition. It seemed so right that a judge, clearly favoring a defendant that was so similar to himself, should face impeachment hearings for such a travesty of justice.

It only was a matter of moments later that I recoiled in horror at my actions:

I had joined in the Internet Lynch Mob.

What Brock Turner did to his victim at Stanford was horrific, and his sentence was far too lenient for such an abhorrent crime. It was a symptom of the systemic failure of our justice system— one that disproportionately affects minorities and the poor.

However, by signing a petition to have a democratically elected judge face impeachment hearings for an (albeit pathetic) sentencing, I had become a part of a terrifying externality of the social media era: the Internet Lynch Mob.

Just like groups who would take justice into their own hands, whether in the Jim Crow era or the French Revolution, Internet Lynch Mobs are a dangerous byproduct of popular anger, amplified by the interconnectedness of the World Wide Web.

The Internet is a powerfully democratizing tool that can help elect America’s first black president, and bring a loner socialist from Vermont to the cusp of nomination for the same office. It can organize social movements that affect positive change on our society, such as the legalization of gay marriage or medical marijuana. What the Internet should not do is be a tool for persecution, rightful or wrongful, against individuals.

Even if the judge in the Brock Turner case was won over by the defendant’s attorney’s pleas for leniency, and this was a failing on his part, that is exactly why he was elected by his local constituency. Someone, hopefully qualified, can now run against him in the upcoming election and replace him. The collective wrath of the Internet, however, should not be responsible for replacing this judge.

Let us hypothesize for a moment, that this petition successfully leads to the removal of Judge Aaron Persky from the bench. Then what?

Well, that would probably scare the shit out of a lot of other judges.

“Great!” you may say— now filthy, privileged rapist scum will get what they deserve in court.

Really, though? How often are upper-class, well-educated white males accused of and prosecuted for rape in court?

Not very often.

Know who are often prosecuted in court? Minorities, poor folk, and the sorts of individuals those signing this exact petition probably would rather help than hurt.

By frightening judges from giving more lenient sentences, those disproportionately affected will be those the petition signers are likely attempting to avenge.

The beautiful fact about democracy is that it is fluid. It may be a slow and frustrating fluidity, but it has an inherent capacity to change and adapt and become better. Putting democracy directly into the hands of the citizenry leads to demagogues like Trump— let’s not destroy what we can prevent, please.

I’ll close this brief rant with a reflection by Joseph Story (1779–1845), an early Supreme Court Justice:

“Let the American youth never forget that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils and sufferings and blood of their ancestors, and capable, if wisely improved and faithfully guarded, of transmitting to the latest posterity all the substantial blessings of life, the peaceful enjoyment of liberty, property, religion, and independence. The structure has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity; its foundations are solid, its compartments are beautiful as well as useful, its arrangements are full of wisdom and order, and its defenses are impregnable from without. It has been reared for immortality, if the work of men may justly aspire to such a title. It may nevertheless perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, the People. Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall when the wise are banished from the public councils because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people in order to betray them.”