Social media making it easy to form online lynch mobs

In the aftermath of the racial violence of Charlottesville, Va., the Twitter account, Yes You’re Racist, has invited its audience to dox the families of white supremacists by publishing names. It’s all very wink-wink. It doesn’t instruct people to make life miserable for family members. It doesn’t have to.


“They’re not wearing hoods anymore — they’re out in the open,” Logan Smith, the man behind the account, says. “And if they’re proud to stand with KKK members and neo-Nazis and anti-government militias, then I think the community should know who they are.”

And do what?

It “outed” a Fargo man who attended the rally, prompting threats to family members, his nephew told the Fargo Forum. And so his father issued a statement, essentially disowning his son. No doubt having a Nazi for a son is painful enough without being compelled to publicly apologize for him.

“Never in my lifetime did I remotely think I would vaguely defend the rights of a possibly very hateful person,” David Clayton Wills, a visiting professor at New York University, tells NPR. He’s black and Jewish, the network points out.

For Wills the historical parallel is Nazi Germany. Wills says the Third Reich encouraged citizens to name people they thought were enemies of the state. “When that became a power that your neighbor could execute or your neighbor could use against other people the power became unchecked.”

Wills says all kinds of people began to get caught up in the drag net of laws and declarations of enemies. Wills knows that social media activists are still very far from the evil that was the Third Reich. But, he thinks maybe people should take a deep breath and think before they press the send button with someone else’s name in the message.

And it’s also important to remember that a picture doesn’t tell the whole story; it can be photo-shopped. Someone could have an ax to grind and try to make it look like an individual is a racist.

Smith says he’s willing to make a mistake.

“Ever since the days of the KKK burning crosses in people’s yards, they depend on people remaining silent” Smith says. “And no matter the risk I’m not going away.”

“I’m not trying to get anybody fired,” Smith tells the Raleigh News & Observer. “I’m not contacting anybody’s employers. But you know, if someone goes to a white supremacists’ rally and their employer sees them, then that’s their prerogative – and that’s something they probably should have thought about.”

“Nobody likes to get death threats, but intimidation is how these people work,” he said. “It’s how they’ve worked from the days of the KKK burning crosses in peoples’ yards and in Nazi Germany. By giving in to their intimidation tactics, that’s how they win.

From the archive: Journalism and the lynch mob mentality (MPR NewsCut)

  • Matt
    • Justin McKinney

      Agreed. Sometimes, mistakes are made. Compare that to the many people wrongfully convicted of crimes in our criminal justice system, and those that are executed wrongfully. Does that mean that we shouldn’t have a criminal justice system, because it may get it wrong from time to time?

      Not trying to be snarky, it’s a legitimate question. I don’t think that what’s currently taking place is being done in 100% the right fashion, but if these people are willing to openly support these types of views, then they shouldn’t be upset when people call them out on it. Now, that doesn’t mean that people should go after their families, not by a long shot. That part I definitely disagree with. But publicly shaming these bigots is fair game in my book.

      • Rob

        Yes. My thought is that if you’re a white supremacist and proud of it, your actions might result in some bad – but not unanticipated – consequences when people see you doing stupid crap, such as participating in publicly-held neo-Nazi rallies. If getting fired from your job is one of those consequences, TFB.

        But attacking someone’s family online or threatening them in other ways because their loved one is a white supremacist, is a tactic right out of the neo-Nazi playbook. We NEED to be better than that.

      • Why does the father in Fargo deserve harrassment and threats?

        • Justin McKinney

          I specifically disagreed with that portion of the incident. I wholeheartedly agree that people’s families should be left out of it. I also realize that it’s very unlikely that people will actually do the right thing and focus their energy on the people who actually participate in the rallies and leave their family members alone.

          • Jeff

            However, the standards for outing someone on the internet are not nearly the equivalent of proof required in the criminal justice system. The reality is that some people won’t leave their family members alone, so does that justify outing someone when you know that will happen? To me anything that smacks of the ends justify the means always smells fishy.

          • Laurie K.

            I agree with Jeff. The problem of “outing” people we find reprehensible is that even though we, here at NewsCut all seem to agree that family members should not be painted with the same broad brush, it is happening.

          • Justin McKinney

            There’s something to be said there. I am not advocating the position of “the ends justify the means” at all. I wish there were some way to solve this issue that didn’t involve the families. As another commenter said, “Does shaming really work for those who evidently don’t have any shame?” – it’s a very valid point.

            Unfortunately, this whole debate ends up on that whole slippery slope of “how far do my First Amendment rights go?” argument. Those on one side of the debate may say that the people who attended the white nationalist rally are exhibiting behavior that justifies punishment as a hate crime, while the other side will say that it’s their right to be there. Until we can come together as a society, and stop teaching our next generation that it’s OK to denigrate another person because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc., we’re going to keep running into this wall. It makes me sad.

          • Veronica

            SCOTUS settled this in 1942: fighting words are not protected free speech.

          • Justin McKinney

            That may be, but there have been many discussions since then about what constitutes “fighting words”. I am in no way condoning what those idiots with the tiki torches were doing or saying, I am simply playing devil’s advocate here. The courts have long held that crazies like the KKK have a protected right to assemble, as disgusting as that is.

            Personally, I’d like to see those types of activities categorized as hate speech, but like I said above, I think that it’s a very slippery slope, and the other side can use the same arguments to disallow a lot of things that people on the left say.

          • I always wish I could get Judge Edward Cleary on a talk show. He argued the case against St. Paul’s ordinance after a teenager burned a cross on the lawn of the only black family on Dayton’s bluff. Tom Foley, then the Ramsey County attorney, defended the law.

            I always think I can go hours with them.

        • Kellpa07

          Pretty sure he just said he doesn’t.

          “Now, that doesn’t mean that people should go after their families, not by a long shot. That part I definitely disagree with.”

  • BJ

    Unless there is something of a ‘crime’, i’m not one for the whole ‘Dox’ thing that is happening lately.

    I’m pretty open on the interwebs. I’m sure some of my posts on newcut could get me into a bit of hot water, nothing I couldn’t or wouldn’t ‘defend’. But I know that by talking about some of my views and having others comment on them, I have changed my views on a number of items – here on newscut.

    • Justin McKinney

      That’s part of what I love most about NewsCut – the posters are willing to have rational discussions the vast majority of the time. Like you, I have had to consider what I post on here, and I have had some viewpoints changed as well.

    • Rg

      On of these nazis just took his car and ran over people

      • BJ

        Was it this guy, or others that got ‘dox’ treatment? If not then his was crime of association?

    • Kassie

      I know a couple co-workers read this and know who I am, so I keep that in mind when posting. Same with twitter, I have co-workers who follow me. It keeps me in check that I would never post something I wouldn’t want my employer to see. That said, I have a lot more free speech protections at my work due to a) working for the government and b) having a union than most people do.

  • Rg

    The nazis are coming out on FB

  • Rg

    Its pretty easy when your picture is all over the news in the front of a lynch mob, yelling and holding tiki torches

  • Rg

    So its an online virtual lynch mob going after the real lynch mob of pro trump nazis.

    • Going after families.

      The same mentality is what led a guy to walk into a pizza shop with a gun looking for a child sex ring run by a presidential candidate. They felt justified, too.

      • Barton

        This is what I have a problem with: guilt by association. It’s one thing to put a name to face actually at the rally. It is completely another thing to attack the family – even the extended family – of that same person.

        But this need that exists – on all sides, it seems – to issue death threats? When did that become acceptable. According to the article, Smith said “no one likes to get death threats.” Sort of in the same vein as you’d say “no one likes to get hangnails.”

  • Rg

    I dont know about you guys but my “friends” on fb who voted for trump are now nazis. They went from denying naziism is trumpism to full on supporting nazis.

    • Richard Winnj

      I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen pages and pages of Face Book pages where every body went from voting for somebody other than Trump, to deciding everybody who voted for Trump is a Nazi.
      Reminds me of the French Revolution. After they chopped off enough heads from the monarchs, the mob turned on itself.

      • I have ascertained that the very best way not to be called a Nazi is twofold: (a) Don’t be one and (b) Don’t defend one.

        • Richard Winnj

          That’s a good start.
          I’ve been in several conversations where people merely raised the topic of violence from any of the counter-protestors and we’re accused of defending Nazis.
          If being rational and logical could solve the problem we wouldn’t have Nazis in the first place.

  • jon

    If these were photos taken at a private gathering then I’d say sure we shouldn’t publish these people’s names.

    BUT these are images captured on public streets, during a public protest.

    If you go to a protest without the intention of standing up and being counted, then why the hell are you there?

    I’ve been to a few protests lately and I’d have no issue with my name being associated with images from those protests. I’d have no issue if a photo or me made the news at such a protest. I stand for what I stand for, and I make no excuses for it… I don’t have to say “I’m not that angry racist” I don’t have to say “Oh no I totally don’t support planned parenthood” or “I’m not the science supporting rational thinker you see in that photo!”

    Stand up and be counted nazi sympathizers… it’s why you marched alongside the swastika in the first place isn’t it?

  • KTN

    Since there is no expectation of privacy in public, this type of action is well justified – I applaud all those doing the unveiling. I read that Jennifer Lawrence has posted some photos of the ignorant racists – to her 16 MILLION followers on Twitter. Awesome.

    • So we accept that any innocents — like the family in Fargo — are collateral damage?

      • KTN

        Yes we do – its an unfortunate part of life – mistakes get made, but the alternative is doing nothing, other than shaking our heads and saying how bad things are, and in my opinion, that’s wrong.

        • Rob

          Bzzzzt.

        • Laurie K.

          There are so, so many more options than just shaking our heads. I have no idea how this issue of outing the supremacists has seemingly become the ONLY way to show one’s disapproval of this type of prejudicial/racial behavior.

          • KTN

            Because it works.
            Not sure how to approach a group of racists, who are openly carrying, not just sidearms, but long guns too. I guess you could go up to them and ask politely if they would go home. I wonder, would that work?
            I have a visceral hate towards that group, so if this is the only means in our power to put a face on those repugnant individuals – so be it.
            They have the right to march for sure, our 1stA gives robust support to that, but these marches don’t happen in a vacuum, so it seems that if social media can be a force for good, we ought to use it.

          • Laurie K.

            Since the majority of us were not even in Charlottesville during this event, I of course do not believe that politely asking them to go home is at all a feasible solution (I also realize that your suggestion was not a real suggestion). However, my point is, that this march is just a small piece of what is going on in the world – we are talking about it today because of the horrendous outcome – the needless death of a young woman at the hands of a man filled with hate due to his beliefs. What I am saying is that we need to stand up against racism in our daily lives – not just when unbearable things happen.

      • Chris

        This is serious business. There are armed groups marching with torches screaming vile things about various minorities. The images are a little too on the nose for Germany in the 1930s. They need to be stopped now. People publishing names of the neo-nazis need to be very careful to get it right, but if anyone is collateral damage, that is the fault of the neo-nazis. We need to stop them right now before they kill anyone else.

        • QuietBlue

          This is the exact same reasoning that’s been used to support ethnic profiling, mass internment, and so on — the same old “ends justify the means, gotta break a few eggs” mentality that anything can be justified if the stakes are high enough.

          It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. There are better ways to deal with this threat.

          • Chris

            You are comparing profiling of innocent people with identifying actual neo-nazis publicly proclaiming their neo-nazi values.

          • QuietBlue

            I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the idea you put forward that collateral damage is okay as long as the target is acceptable.

          • Chris

            I didn’t say it’s ok. I’m not for anyone harassing family members, if a neo-nazi loses a job when outed, if his family is saddened like the Fargo dad, the cause of the damage is the person joining the neo-nazi marches. Identifying them is a deterrent to future activities.

          • QuietBlue

            Yes, the marchers made their bed, so to speak, and can’t expect their actions not to catch up with them. But it needs to stay with them, and not the people who didn’t do anything.

          • Rob

            Booshwah. The blame for collateral damage rests solely on the people who direct their online anger and outrage at inappropriate targets.

      • Rob

        It’s incumbent on anyone calling out white supremacists on social media to also DECLARE IN LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS THAT VILIFYING AND/OR THREATENING FAMILY MEMBERS IS NOT A PERMISSIBLE RESPONSE, and that those who engage in such activities should in turn be shunned online.

        • Lorri

          Yeah, Bob H., that’ll stop them for sure.

          • Rob

            Didn’t say It would stop them. The point is that such behavior needs to be actively curbed by other social media users, not encouraged. It’s called peer pressure.

  • Veronica

    I guess I thought the white supremacist marchers were the lynch mobs. They did a pretty good job of fitting the description: torches at night, beating up people, shooting at others…

    We can debate if the online shaming the angry white dudes are going through is justified, but to call the response a “lynch mob” feeds into the “both sides are equally bad” nonsense.

    And I’m sorry, they willingly went to a white supremacist march, fully knowing social media exists, made no attempt to hide their identities or tone down their behavior…too bad, guys.

    • // but to call the response a “lynch mob” feeds into the “both sides are equally bad” nonsense.

      You left out a word. I called them an “online lynch mob.” And it has nothing to do with suggesting both sides are equally bad.

      I’ve been doing this for 10 years and most people who read NewsCut do or SHOULD know by now that the day I think “both sides are equally bad” is the day I WRITE that both sides are equally bad.

      • J F Hanson

        The rest of us should note Bob’s observations here are the basis for a large part of online argument: the inaccurate assumptions readers make about the other in order to advance a certain POV.

        No listening is done–just sketchy rehetoric to shout louder.

        • Perhaps. At the same time the occasional suggestion that we should find common ground with these people is a bridge too far , at least for me.

          • J F Hanson

            But we already have common ground, Bob.

            Like it or not, they are ‘Americans.’

            (BTW, that admonition is for both sides, AFAICT).

          • in the eyes of the government and the bill of rights, anyway. My mileage varies.

          • Rob

            If people are believing in and doing things that traduce basic American principles, I’d contend that those folks aren’t very American – and are therefore not folks with whom there’s common ground to be shared.

      • Veronica

        Point taken. You would have said that outright. I still think there’s a better term for what people on twitter are doing.

  • babaganoush

    The old punk rockers had it right, make Nazis afraid to be Nazis.

    • Richard Winnj

      Surely Nazis aren’t the only thing you don’t want people to be. Your goal is too small. Why not try to make people afraid to be anything you don’t want them to be?
      I hoped and wanted people to be afraid to be punk rockers, but I failed. At least I have Google music and I can still play the last of the good music from the 70s

  • Bob Sinclair

    I realize this isn’t part of Bob’s main intent on shaming the families of those in protests, however after reading some of these posts I wonder why no one has commented on the possibility of shaming anarchists who join various protests and end up destroying public property and creating chaos (which often times physically hurts others). Shouldn’t this type of shaming be equal opportunity? (And this leads me to this question – Does shaming really work for those who evidently have no shame?)

    • jon

      1) anarchists who go to riots just to riot tend to wear masks or obscure their face… (probably because they know they are likely doing something illegal and would rather not be identified…)

      2) Shaming them must work, at least a little, or else why would any of them come out and say “I’m not the angry racist you see in the photo [of me]!” clearly identifying them as who they are at the protest is something they are at least a touch ashamed of…

      • Bob Sinclair

        Good points

  • Jerry

    A lot of people seem to think that just because their cause is righteous, their actions are too.

  • Veronica

    Stupid question: how many other families got harassed for their sons’ or brothers’ showing up to a white supremacist March?

  • Kassie

    As a pacifist, I don’t believe anyone should be threatened ever. That said, contacting someone’s family member to say, “hey, did you know that your son/brother/cousin is a racist, attended this Nazi march, and this is why it is bad…” is fair game to me, as long as it isn’t threatening. Families should be putting pressure on their racist family members to not participate in these things. Families should have the conversations ahead of time about what they will do (like disown their son) if they show up on the internet participating in this kind of action. Your “crazy racist uncle” shouldn’t get away with that behavior online or at Christmas. They should be confronted and told that what they are saying is hurtful, wrong and not acceptable. When no one stands up to them, they think they have support of their family. Silence equals support.

    • The letter from the father was heartbreaking and a great example of the pain of being a parent. There’s only so much you can do to “pur pressure on them”.

      The nephew’s comment describing the guy’s road to becoming a Nazi. He said he ” is a maniac, who has turned away from all of us and gone down some insane internet rabbit-hole, and turned into a crazy nazi.”

      The Internet is full of insane people making more insane people every day.

      • Kassie

        Sure, this is one guy and one family. But how many of those young people would of been there if their family was explicit ahead of time that if they show up at something like that, they will no longer get tuition or housing or be allowed at Christmas? Those guys showed up because they thought their would be no consequences and that people supported them. We need to stop supporting racists and Nazis.

        • // We need to stop supporting racists and Nazis.

          No kidding. No one is arguing otherwise. That’s not an issue. The question is whether innocent people are hurt in the process is a result of the online mob mentality.

          People think we should — appropriate — end child sex rings, too. But we can’t excuse the mentality that led a man to walk into a pizza joint with a gun.

    • Rob

      Yeah – not. I think it’s safe to assume that most families are fully and painfully aware of any members who espouse white supremacist views; the last thing these families need is outsiders politely or otherwise informing them of these realities.

      Regarding your own crazy uncle, call him out all you want.

    • Laurie K.

      Your solution starts with the presumption that the family has not previously tried to “pressure” their adult child into not participating in these types of marches/events. It also assumes that the families of every supremacist has not had a conversation ahead of time what they will do should they chose to participate in this type of action.

    • Barton

      I feel the same about unsolicited penis pictures. I have zero problems contacting the sender’s mom and sharing the photo with her.

  • John

    This is an ethical argument as old as time. It’s been a long time, but I was required to take a couple religion classes when I was in college, and one of the ones I took was a study of ethics. The question, as the professor put it, was this:

    Do the ends justify the means, or are the means an end unto themselves?

    Personally, I think we who are against Naziism or the KKK or whatever the supremacists want to call themselves, are in the wrong when we are threatening/harassing the families of the supremacists – so stop doing that. Focus on the problem – white supremacists.

    As highlighted in some other posts, the question in focusing on the problem, and showing these people for what they are in the cold clear light of day, what level of collateral damage is acceptable? I don’t know the answer. For myself, while I don’t condone the actions of harassing families of racists, I’m willing to accept that it’s likely to happen because the possible alternative (i.e. these racists pigs get a foothold and cause much larger problems and considerably more damage to other people) is so unacceptable to me. I don’t like that families (presumed innocent bystanders – declared guilty by association) are being harassed, but I don’t see a path that stops the march of racism while simultaneously reducing the damage done to those close to the racist.

    In my opinion, the sin of not doing anything is far worse than the potential damage being done by action.

    • Laurie K.

      I do not consider myself “not doing anything” if I choose not to “out” someone demonstrating in support of white supremacy. I choose to “do something” by working for an agency that defends the rights of all people, including people of races and religions which many of the supremacist groups despise. I choose to “do something” by speaking up when I see racist behavior. I don’t choose to waste my time on “outing” or trying to punish those who support racial or prejudicial thinking – that does not mean that I am watching passively the march of racism.

  • Karl Crabkiller

    I am appalled at the number of people who think internet shaming is acceptable for “some events”; they are taking a short dimwitted posture.
    Where does the shaming start? – where does it end? Who decides what is unacceptable – who draws the line?

    • KTN

      Well, one could argue that it starts and stops with supporting the cause of white supremacy. That those marchers are being outed is the happy outcome of their actions.

      • The thing is: None of them seemed to be particularly concerned about secrecy. There they were, having traveled across the country in many cases, to stand in the bright light of day, willing to be photographed, holding Nazi and Confederate flags and shouting Nazi and white power slogans. Almost as if their entirely energy came from the attention — good and bad — paid to them. I don’t know what the answer is. I only know that it’s not going to be found on Twitter.

        • KTN

          Right, this is just another example of the “great disinhibition” unleashed by the ignorant racist we call the President. All social norms are gone now, take off the hood, be loud and proud – it’s all okay because he says it is.

          • Richard Winnj

            Maybe it’s just another example of the “great disinhibition” unleashed during the recent campaign. We tried calling Donald Trump and his supporters irredeemable racist bigots and we almost won. Let’s double down and call everybody who disagrees with us a racist bigot. Let’s try to ruin there life in any way we can.No racist bigot can possibly survive our moral superiority.

          • I sense sarcasm here. No other way to explain the obvious inaccuracies.

    • jon

      Events in public are public

      Private events are private.

      If you go into public, you should have NO expectation of privacy… if you have no expectation of privacy, then the concept of you being “outed” (i.e. your name revealed) shouldn’t be a shock or a surprise, you should have had NO expectation of privacy.

      30 years ago in public, I could take photos and publish them in a book of photos, I could share them around the world via snail mail, newspapers, books… etc.

      The internet has as much to do with this as newspapers and books or the postal system did in yesteryear, it’s only a means of delivery… this is not new, the lines have been there for years.

      • I don’t think the question of an expectation of privacy is even remotely an issue. At least one that anyone is invoking.

  • Tim o’Bedlam

    I have absolutely no problem with social media naming and shaming tiki-torch Nazis. I have a serious problem if anyone goes after the family of said Nazis.
    (And if you’re going to publicly identify Nazi protestors and broadcast it on the internet, make sure you’ve got the right Nazi.)
    Absolutely no problem with naming the people in the tiki-torch parade and identifying them. They *should* face universal opprobrium for being Nazis.