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Internet Justice
What kind of world are we creating?

Articles in this occasional series about justice and injustice are dedicated to the memory of screenwriter William Kelly, who said to us, "If you can't think of something to write about, write about injustice. There is plenty of it." Kelly, who also studied to be a priest, was known to chase purse snatchers down the street in front of his office. He wrote portions of the Academy Award winning movie Witness, and wrote many stories in television series such as Gunsmoke.

Copyright © 2007 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


Ahhhh, the satisfaction of vigilante justice - someone getting their just deserts, poetic justice. After all, justice delayed is justice denied - hang them now. Consider that "revenge is a dish best served cold," especially when we are filled with righteous wrath.... The Internet offers a whole new world of "justice," but where is this taking us? Is some kind of responsibility required, or is this just a free-for-all? What kind of world are we creating?

Scratch the guy's car and he will think twice about cheating on someone again. Sure. It's a satisfying notion, but is it true? In the 1950s, all the world was pure, and things were black and white. All the writers of TV shows and newspapers put forth the idea that if you were accused of a crime, you should turn yourself in and justice would come out. The police, after all, were fair-minded people who wanted to serve justice. And if a crime had been committed, they would catch the perpetrator sooner or later.

Reality is that thing that we have to live with, and sometimes writing is just wishful thinking... this is the way we want the world to be. Reality never measures up to the ideal. The nation's jails, courts, and police forces are their own subcultures with their own isolated sense of morality and fair play. Criminal's own techniques are often used against them, and inadvertently against us... because it isn't easy to catch someone who has committed a crime. And if we had the courts write laws for 50 years, we still wouldn't have enough laws to stop those who spend all of their time trying to find ways around them. The more laws you have the more it interferes with those who try to lead decent lives. If you and I had to deal with people who break laws for a few months, we would probably die of frustration or just kill them all - yet many people who commit crimes go through this system, despite all of its faults, and get their lives changed for the better.

Unfortunately justice often isn't served, and injustice is everywhere. The public and state governments are writhing now with vigilante justice because Congress failed to take on its responsibilities and solve the illegal immigrant crisis that they created by ignoring it, so injustice abounds for all involved. Those who commit crimes often escape the long arm of the law. Crime sometimes does pay in the short term (but usually not ultimately). Innocent people sometimes get ensnared in the lock of overzealous police, prosecutors, and the newspapers where the public cry for justice traps innocent victims in its path. And even those who knew victims and watch executions of their murderers, don't find them satisfying - closure is not there - justice is not the end result.

A host of movies and TV series have appeared in the decades since the 1950s, from Dirty Harry, a quasi vengeance series, to Dark Angel, in which people get what's coming to them. Some are against police corruption and injustice, The Negotiator, and even the unjust medical system John Qand SICKO, that illustrate the consequences to those less fortunate of a move of a compassionate system to a privileged system. The steady march of stories that appeal to those hurt by our systems show underlying problems that drive people to the point of taking things into their own hands.

The Internet brings us new opportunities for "justice." People can go online and report professors who don't teach well, make lists of sex offenders so the public can avoid them, cry out in blogs on just about any topic, and report problems with products and services on sites for that purpose. You can make life difficult or miserable for those who make life difficult and miserable for you. Suddenly it isn't possible to just get away with murder anymore.

Recently a young woman killed herself after having a relationship online. A neighbor woman felt she had somehow wronged her child and decided to dispense some twisted form of justice. So the neighbor woman posed online as a young man and created this endearing relationship with the young woman. Finally the woman pulled a weapon and shot the young woman with her poison pill - an accusation about mistreatment and the end of the relationship. The young woman, who apparently was already fighting depression, killed herself.

Well meaning citizens were up in arms. Something had to be done. The woman had committed no crimes, but she had caused the young woman's death by her underhanded and deceptive ruse. She could not be allowed to get away with this. The public has a right to know about such people. So one blog journalist printed some identifying information, and then others found out more information and published the woman's name and location. Irate people filled Internet blogs, news reports, and the telephone lines with their venom. The woman was harassed. Justice would be had.

The Internet is a wonderful mechanism for public communication. It can help address such issues as justice when the law is powerless. Yet it can also be incredibly destructive. There are several issues that we have to keep in mind.

  1. When something is published, it is forever. It has a life of its own. If it hurts, it keeps on hurting forever. And when passions are inflamed, people tend to say way too much. This doesn't allow the guilty to change and lose the effects of their past. It is like a permanent brand on their forehead.
  2. The Internet allows for libelous and defamatory statements. Although the law applies to people making these statements, it is possible to imply much without actually stating specifics. Just as some political election committees do on a regular basis, you can tear down public support by misstating the complete facts and making your oponent look evil.
  3. People are innocent until proven guilty. While this is a legal statement, it also applies equally to any accusation made against others. The facts surrounding an event make all the difference in the world, and people on the Internet are distanced from the facts. When this is ignored, mob rule becomes the norm and everyone is at risk.
  4. When people don't know the facts, and assume guilt, passions get inflamed by the rhetoric (and many start shouting in BIG LETTERS), mob rule can occur and the more radical people are likely to take vengeance into their own hands. Starting a conversation about moral, ethical, or legal guilt on the Web without seeking out the facts is like hiring a cheap hit man - some radical person will step up to the plate and do the deed. The guilt for the consequences is on those who spoke the words but didn't seek the facts. Libel, defamation, breach of the peace, disorderly conduct, conspiracy to riot, and inciting a riot are felonies.
An abundance of caution should be the byword on the Internet, just as it typically is in the respectable press (not the tabloids whose goal is sensationalism driven ratings, or the news entertainment journalists, some of whom froth at the mouth and spit on truth). Those who are self-proclaimed Internet aficionados should also take on the mantel of ethical journalistic standards, learn and apply the ethical standards of journalism, and make sure the public knows and abides by those standards in what is published in blogs and sites under their purview.

Having said that, the Internet is a great place for dialogue. Issues can be discussed by the public for such things as masquerading as a boyfriend to teach someone a lesson. It's a great place to express an opinion. People whose behavior is objectionable can get the message - like those who talk their way through movies at the theater. It's a great place for legitimate Web sites to register complaints against manufacturers and services, so that people can conveniently check them out in this global marketplace. (But keep in mind, this doesn't mean that the consumer always has legitimate expectations of manufacturers, and often doesn't offer a way to resolve issues, as do the Better Business Bureaus. Companies such as eBay have an excellent mechanism in place for this - satisfaction ratings are posted for both those who sell or buy products. But even this doesn't substitute for the consumer being informed on products.)

What kind of world are we creating, especially as writers? Is it a vengeful community bent on hurtful action, or one in which dialogue and opinion are constructive in public and individual change?

- Scott

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