Dublin – If you are planning to be nasty to a cat or criticise earthquake victims for keeping your favourite shows off TV, watch out for the internet lynch mobs.
One of the more bizarre side-effects of the explosion in YouTube use and social networking has been the rise of online vigilantes exacting Old Testament-style vengeance on those they consider to be wrongdoers.
And their weapons are naming and shaming, disruptive pranks and the kind of abuse usually reserved for war criminals.
In recent extreme cases, victims of the virtual pitch-fork wielding cyber-mobs have had their bank accounts hacked into, seen their “crimes” reported to their employers and endured pranks such as dealing with endless hoax pizza deliveries.
One woman in the US had to seek police protection earlier this month after a video uploaded onto YouTube, which featured her racially abusing a postman, made her the target of hundreds of thousands of web vigilantes.
In China, a young woman who (very unwisely) criticised the blanket coverage given to the victims of a calamitous earthquake because it was interrupting her favourite TV shows was effectively hunted down and targeted with death threats and actual attacks on her home.
The most reported case to date has been that of notorious “Cat In Wheelie Bin Woman” Mary Bale.
The Coventry woman was caught earlier this year on CCTV footage pushing a cat into a wheelie bin.
It took just 24 hours for users of the controversial online message board 4Chan (a prime vigilante site dubbed the “online hate machine” by critics) to identify the woman on the grainy CCTV images uploaded onto YouTube.
As the influential online magazine boingboing.net reported: “Almost immediately after the video started making the internet rounds, the 4chan legion set out to find this woman and destroy her life.
“Within a few hours she was identified as Mary Bale, of Coventry (England)”.
But there’s more: they also found out where she worked. They posted the phone number and name of her boss. They found out where she lived, and posted a Google map of that address. They found her Facebook profile.”
Bale, her friends, colleagues and family were deluged with thousands of hate-mails, she received death threats and abusive phone calls from all over the world.
Bale had become one of the growing number of victims of the web vigilante phenomenon.
Observers have talked about the internet’s “collective hive mind” that reacts to examples of outrageous, anti-social or unseemly behaviour and sets about exacting immediate and wildly overblown retribution.
With virtually everybody in the developed world now having an online presence, it is relatively easy to track down and target individuals.
Large corporations have also been targeted with companies such as British Petroleum, in the wake of the Gulf Oil spill, being targeted by hackers and abusive mailers to the extent that IT systems were effectively shut down and frontline staff needed counselling. – Irish Independent