“Let’s make this bitch go viral.”
In 2017, Joy Lane, a Salt Lake City-based comedian, did indeed go viral, but not for her standup routine or an especially riveting comedy club performance.
Rather she went viral as “the murderous slut” whose romantic rebuttals triggered Steve Stephens to go on a killing spree in Cleveland. After all, Stephens had invoked Lane’s name during a Facebook live session shortly before killing a 74-year old man. This turn of events quickly sparked the #JoyLaneMassacre hashtag.
As the viral video gained traction, outraged users flooded Lane’s page with accusations, insults, and threats.
“You should just kill yourself, you fucking whore.”
But the Joy Lane in Utah not only had never even met Stephens, but she had never even been to Cleveland in her life.
Unfortunately, Lane shared both a first and last name with the killer’s ex-girlfriend and both were Black and approximately the same age. Yet they were not the same person at all.
That didn’t stop people from clicking. Liking. Sharing. Tweeting. Posting.
In less than 24 hours, Joy’s life was torn apart and she feared for her safety.
When the wrong person goes viral
In today’s culture of outraged mob mentality, the results can be deadly, such as have been cases in recent weeks with mass shootings, specifically the synagogue shooting. While this type of extreme outrage makes national headlines, the truth is that most of today’s outrage is confined to online rage and verbal abuse/assault.
While the cases of smartphone-recorded racism go viral (and rightfully so), what happens to the victims when people are so outraged that they are just trying to “help?” In today’s hypersensitive culture, there seems to be a frenzied sprint to be the most “woke.” On any given day, outraged users implore their friends and followers to share photos, posts, videos, or screenshots of unforgivable offenses- specifically those of perceived racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or other forms of bigotry.
While sharing problematic content can indeed bring attention to an issue, the “share now” culture of outrage has claimed countless victims- victims who even once they have been found innocent will forever live in the shadows of false accusations due to mistaken identity or lack of information.
Months later in August of 2017, as the outrage over Ms. Lane’s perceived transgression was beginning to wane, the outrage culture claimed another high-profile victim, Kyle Quinn, a University of Arkansas professor, who was mistakenly identified as being present at the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
After all, there was a mid-30’s white man with a beard wearing a University of Arkansas Engineering t-shirt holding a tiki torch and touting the benefits of a superior race. Dr. Quinn was a white male in his mid-30’s with a beard and worked at the University of Arkansas. Surely this was proof enough for the thousands of people who shared the post calling for his firing in what will remain without a doubt one of the worst virtual witch hunts of the last decade.
During the night of the rally, the real Dr. Quinn, however, was over 500 miles away from Charlottesville unassumingly enjoying a quiet evening with his wife- unaware that less than 24 hours later, he would be unable to sleep in his own home due to countless death threats.
While keyboard activists may have the best of intentions (after all, who doesn’t want to be a part of stopping racism/sexism/homophobia/etc.?), few stop to think if the information is taken out of context or even factual.
Ashleigh McGirt, MSW, LSW, a licensed counselor and social worker, points out that these incidents are reflective of a larger problem. “Everyone wants to be first. In order to be first, you have to put the news out as quickly as possible. The desire to first often supersede the desire to be factual. With the advancement of technology, internet society has become a microwavable society. The same way it has become easier to microwave food, it has become that easy to click ‘share’ versus taking the time to prepare a meal from scratch or do the necessary research to determine if something is factual or not. Most people just want to know what happened, they don’t care if it may be true or not. They see a sensational headline and without even reading the contents of the article, the source, the date, or anything, they just hit ‘share.’”
Viral outrage robs a teen of his youth
In the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, keyboard social justice warriors took to the internet in full force- alternatively calling for the repeal of the second amendment or greater freedom for it. Mixed in with the angry posts, falsified statistics in the form of memes, and blog posts posing as legitimate news outlets, the angriest of the mob found time to deride, insult, and verbally harass their opposition. One recipient of such harassment was David Hogg, an 18-year-old Parkland student turned outspoken gun control activist who lapped up a fair amount of airtime, celebrity support, and death threats.
Yet several states away in Texas, the life of David Hogg, age 16, a young white male who bore nothing more than a passing descriptive resemblance to the David Hogg of Parkland, was forever changed. As his number of Twitter followers skyrocketed from under 100 to the thousands, he was inundated with misplaced support as well as blind rage.
Suddenly, a young man whose biggest concern had been finding a summer job and saving money for a car was thrust into the tumultuous limelight.
Despite his persistent assertions that he had never even been to Florida aside from a childhood trip, the barrage of accusations and insults (from both sides) continued. When I was scheduling the interview with David and his mother, the first thing that he told me was that he’d have to schedule around his finals. If as adults, both Ms. Lane and Dr. Quinn went through a lot, the situation was magnified even more for a teenager.
True, most Americans have a short enough attention span that within a week, they’ve directed their outrage elsewhere, yet few take the time to delete their misdirected call to action and even fewer admit their mistake.
While McGirt points out that sharing newsworthy stories can often be helpful, she also cautions against jumping the gun in the name of social justice. “When factual truthful information is put out, it has the potential to create awareness and in turn, awareness creates change. As a social justice advocate and mental health advocate, I believe in spreading knowledge and sharing truthful information and resources. Some individuals may desire to do the same but do not have enough desire in fact checking their information,” McGirt explains.
Yet McGirt believes that the positive changes are often diluted by the barrage of skewed or false news that is too often shared in the quest for quick viral fame. “There is also a bit of a high that comes from the shock factor. People might think: ‘If I put this information out, others will have a reaction,’ which can create a certain high for the individuals putting the information out. All of these things stem from the desire to be first, to getting that high, not wanting to wait. When people are doing this, they often do not think about the level of harm they can cause others by putting out misinformation.”
Even over a year later, Ms. Lane still has to explain to potential employers who might search her name online that she had no part in a mass killing spree in Ohio, the young Mr. Hogg is vocal on Twitter about his daily life (yes, he got that summer job), and Dr. Quinn has eloquently defended himself time and time again.
“You have celebrities and hundreds of people doing no research online, not checking facts,” Dr. Quinn told The Washington Times. “I’ve dedicated my life to helping all people, trying to improve healthcare and train the next generation of scientists, and this is potentially throwing a wrench in that.”
Yet following the next national tragedy, there will be another false claim or mistaken identity.
And another victim.
As users share false outrage, in their wake, they leave very real victims- Joy, Kyle, David, and countless others whose lives (and legacies) will forever remain changed.