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The Internet is becoming a dangerous place to make a mistake

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In this photo taken Tuesday, July 7, 2015, an old male lion raises his head above the long grass in the early morning, in the savannah of the Maasai Mara, south-western Kenya.

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 7, 2015, an old male lion raises his head above the long grass in the early morning, in the savannah of the Maasai Mara, south-western Kenya.

Ben Curtis, AP

The Internet has become a breeding ground for public expressions of outrage, and one of the latest examples stems from the death of Cecil, a male lion beloved by residents in multiple African countries.

An American dentist named Walter Palmer, looking for thrills during a trip to Zimbabwe, shot Cecil illegally with both a bow and arrow and a rifle. Now, the Zimbabwe government wants Palmer extradited, and he’s gone into hiding.

But the story doesn’t end there. The incident quickly went viral. Going viral isn’t quite what it used to be. It can go well beyond just tweets and lengthy Facebook rants.

As Vox’s Max Fisher detailed July 30, the reaction to Cecil’s death has transformed into a form of “mob justice” and spun “out of control.” The Internet, according to Fisher, has given people “the power to act on their anger, to reach into Palmer's life and punish him for what he'd done, without having to wait for the wheels of more formal justice to turn.”

Those who wish to punish the hunter, according to Fisher, are pushing for two main objectives: First, they are “going after his livelihood” and, second, they are “seeking to inflict psychological suffering in the form of harassment and threats.”

“This campaign against Palmer (the last name of the hunter) has been disturbingly successful,” Fisher wrote. “His dental practice is closed at the moment, and his harassers are gleeful that they are denying him an income.”

This certainly punishes Palmer, but Fisher also argues that it harms innocent bystanders as well.

“Palmer's family presumably relies on his income,” Fisher said. “So do his employees, whose livelihoods are now threatened as well.”

This form of justice is no justice at all, but it is also certainly not new, according to Fisher.

As Fisher pointed out, much of the controversy surrounding another harmful Internet campaign #GamerGate stemmed from the manner in which gaming advocates who disagreed with feminist critiques of gaming culture sought to silence people through threats.

The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey wrote last year that no matter the initial intentions of #GamerGate, the movement quickly resulted in feminist advocates fearing for their lives and being forced to leave their homes.

“In many cases, these women received highly graphic, disturbing threats,” Dewey explained. “And in a few cases, anonymous Twitter trolls went so far as to include the woman’s address or an exact time of attack, making the message a ‘true,’ i.e. criminally punishable, threat.”

But not all instances of “mob rule” are as extreme as Cecil the lion or #GamerGate.

In his efforts to contextualize the outrage over Cecil, Big Think’s Robert Montenegro turned to another subject: Bill Cosby.

“Bill Cosby is almost certainly a rapist,” Montenegro said at the outset of his piece. Despite the mounting evidence against him, “It's unlikely he'll ever be convicted of that crime” due to the statute of limitations in the states where he allegedly drugged and raped dozens of women.

The lack of legal discipline hasn’t kept Cosby from receiving some justice. As Montenegro notes, the legendary comedian has suffered a slew of professional setbacks — including the cancellation of a new television show being developed by NBC — and the public generally views him as a rapist. In large part, we have the Internet to thank for that.

“The Cosby saga can be dissected any which way, but it's at its most fascinating when observed as a form of vigilante justice,” Montenegro concluded.

Indeed, there is some merit to the empowerment the Internet provides for the voiceless. Though the Internet outrage machine doesn’t typically get high marks for efficacy, there are those who argue that the mob mentality has led to significant changes, even going so far as to change laws.

But even among the less violent stain of Internet justice, there are stories of lives that were ruined by the court of (often anonymous) public opinion. To those who argue that stoking Internet outrage can be beneficial, they are the unfortunate casualties in a necessary war.

Returning to the case of Cecil the Lion, there are those who believe the outrage over the outrage may be misplaced.

“Internet mob justice is random and severe,” Vox’s German Lopez wrote in response to his colleague’s article. “So is formal criminal justice.”

“Fisher is right that the randomness and severity of mob justice is a huge problem with Internet culture today, and that the criminal justice system is supposed to act in the opposite way,” Lopez continued. “But that's not how the criminal justice system works in reality. The system tends to work much closer to how Fisher describes mob justice than the ideal he envisions.”

Whether we fear social media justice or believe it’s simply the dawn of a new age of more effective activism, it appears as though it’s here to stay. The ramifications of that might take some getting used to.

“The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people,” journalist Jon Ronson said in a Ted Talk filmed last month. "But we're now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”

For Palmer, retracting to a state of voicelessness may not be enough.

“Everybody doesn’t get 15 minutes of fame these days,” Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum wrote. “Instead, each week some randomly chosen schmo gets an onslaught of withering, life-destroying shame —whether they deserve it or not.”

JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.