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From flash mob to lynch mob

  • Story Highlights
  • Growth in Internet social networking means more integration of virtual and real
  • Anonymous online masses can transform into 'real life' mobs
  • Internet mobs claim it is a way to make people or organisations accountable
  • Once targeted, users are powerless to remove online details or footage
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(CNN) -- A Korean woman receives death threats because she wouldn't clean up her dog's mess on the subway; a Chinese man suspected of philandering is besieged by angry emails and phone calls; an American college student caught plagiarizing online is turned in by incensed bloggers.

art.fleshmob.jpg

A zombie 'flesh mob' hits the streets of London, England

Forget Big Brother, it's the Internet mob that's watching you...

It's a long time since the Internet was populated purely by geeks and freaks. Our personas in virtual space are increasingly integrated with our "real life" identities; a growing number of people have Facebook profiles, blogs and Flickr accounts.

And our physical and virtual worlds are meshing, too. "Flash mobbing" is one of the Internet's stranger crazes. Groups of people organized by Web sites, email and text message descend on public spaces to take part in bizarre demonstrations of performance art.

The first Flash mob took place at Macy's in New York City in June 2003 when over a hundred people converged in the rug department.

The phenomenon has spread to flash parties on subway trains and silent flash raves in train stations in Great Britain; flash pillow fights in Toronto; zombie flash mobs in San Francisco; and a flash proposal of marriage to one girl in Beijing.

Flash mobbing is seen at worst as a nuisance that can delay commuters and other travelers who encounter mobs in action. But groups of people have been harnessed via the Internet for purposes other than entertainment -- and one of these phenomena, known as "mobbing," is more sinister.

In 2005, a woman known as "Dog Poop Girl" became the victim of an Internet shame attack when, after refusing to clean up after her dog on a South Korean subway train, another commuter posted her picture on the Internet. She was quickly identified, her personal details were posted online, she was subjected to harassment and she even received death threats.

In a recent article for TIME magazine, web guru Jaron Lanier wrote, "Collectives tend to be mean, to designate official enemies, to be violent, and to discourage creative, rigorous thought... We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob."

And Lanier thinks it could go further. "What's to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture?"

Some say it's already happening.

Internet mobbing is most prevalent in South East Asian countries, where social norms are strict yet perceived as under threat. People are targeted when they are thought to have deviated from those norms. Along with Dog Poop Girl, vigilantes have pursued other targets with menacing enthusiasm.

It took just five days in 2006 for vigilantes to track down the "Stiletto Kitten Killer" -- a Chinese woman who was videoed crushing a kitten's skull with her high-heeled shoe. Both she and the man who filmed her had their personal and contact information posted across the Internet, along with Internet "Wanted" posters. They lost their jobs and had to issue public apologies, a stern punishment in a country where animal protection laws do not exist.

The same year, a manhunt was on to catch the "Shanghai Sex Blogger", a Western expat who detailed his dalliances with numerous Chinese women. Chinese bloggers raged against him. One, a professor of psychology at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, called for an "Internet hunt for the immoral foreigner" and called repeatedly for the man to be "found and kicked out of China!!!"

In another well-known Chinese case, an angry husband who suspected his wife was having an affair with a college student she'd met in an online game asked for help tracking him down. The Associated Press reported that the student, who denied the accusation, was bombarded with harassing and threatening e-mails.

This vigilante action might be prompted by understandable moral outrage, but some are concerned that the headline-grabbing witch-hunts have been vastly out of proportion with the original transgressions.

Vigilantes have not stopped at reprimanding their quarry: They have shamed them publicly in front of thousands of people; their identities and personal details have been posted for all to see, making them vulnerable to fraud and identity theft; they and their families have been harassed.

A director at South Korea's Ministry of Information and Communications, Oh Sang Kyoon told the International Herald Tribune, "Victims cannot live a normal life. They quit jobs and run away from society. They even flee the country. It's like lynching victims in a 'people's court on the Web.'"

It's hard not to feel sympathy for some targets of mobbing. An American college student known as "Laura K. Krishna" (not her real name) was caught out when she offered a stranger $75 via instant messenger to write a paper for her.

Unfortunately for her, the person she approached, comedy writer and blogger Nate Kushner, accepted her offer and blogged about it, hoping to teach the plagiarist a lesson. But the story was seized by enraged bloggers and quickly span out of control: They flooded her home and college with emails and phone calls, demanding she be kicked out of school.

Laura K. Krishna quickly became the butt of McJob jokes and her long-term employment prospects suffered (ask any employer who Googles a potential recruit before hiring; her real name is still easily obtainable online). There's no doubt that plagiarism is wrong, but was the punishment meted out to her appropriate for her crime?

A commenter posting as "Joanna" thinks not. She wrote on Nate Kushner's blog, "I felt slightly sick when I read that, apparently, a fair number of people on this thread want to see 'Ms. Krishna' expelled, publicly flayed, drawn and quartered, et cetera.

"As a college student working my a** off for an English degree, I have no respect for this girl ... but she is, above all, just a stupid kid who did a stupid thing."

Once they're targeted, there's little that people can do to remove details about them online. Information travels fast and can be replicated with ease. Nate Kushner removed Laura K. Krishna's name and college from his site at the request of her mother, but her details remain on other sites. It would take remarkable concerted effort -- and co-operation from Web site owners -- to expunge her information from the Internet.

This is partly because the Internet is not regulated by any one set of laws. It transcends national boundaries, and makes recourse to legal avenues complicated, expensive and questionably effective, as Brazilian model Daniela Cicarelli found when she tried to use the law to remove YouTube videos of her romping in the sea with her banker boyfriend.

As fast as YouTube took down the videos, they were re-posted, while the press coverage of the lawsuit simply sparked more interest in the footage, plus a whole host of spoof tributes.

The most concerning aspect of mobbing, though, is the way large groups of people can be mobilized to attack a perceived transgressor without their accusers providing any real evidence of their guilt. On the Internet, the mob can be judge and jury.

One American blogger, Jason, has touted the use of mobbing as a tool to hold public officials accountable for their actions. "Isn't the threat of hundreds of people calling you during dinner to tell you what a jerk you are seem like it would make you tone it down a bit?" he wrote. "When I see an infuriating story crop up on Digg, I'm going to dig for personal information about the offenders and post it to the comments," he continued.

But while Jason's intentions might be to protect the public, can mob rule be a viable option for any society? Some argue that virtual lynchings will only turn transgressors into victims. Even online, as the saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right.

In the meantime, those thinking of the Internet as an idyllic place for freedom of expression would be wise to take heed: say what you like, but remember that the mob is watching you...

.......................................

Do Internet users have the right to track people online? Have you experienced Internet mobbing? Share your stories and read what others have to say in the forum. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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