Fragile Alliances and Moral Harm: The Ontological Status of Internet Mobs
In this paper, I focus on cases where an agent has committed a harmful moral transgression online and is brought to account by an internet mob in ways that produce incongruously injurious results in their offline life. A paradigmatic example of this is when an agent loses their job because of an offensive Tweet. I argue that participants in an internet mob assume membership in a moral community, and this assumption is used by participants to 1) justify their own participation in internet mob accountability practices, and 2) use shaming tactics to “bring the transgressor to account.” Worse, social media users at large ground this assumption when they treat internet mobs as “righteous” in discourse about what transgressors “deserve.”
I contend that internet mobs form something closer to what Iris Marion Young calls a serial collective. A serial collective is not a group (ergo, not a community), but it does designate a certain level of social existence and relations with others that are based upon actions directed toward particular ends. Seriality can be externally constructed (such as in the cases of gender, race, class, and the like), but it can also be purposefully constructed by individuals who act together toward the same end. I argue that internet mobs form ephemeral serial collectives – collectives that are organized around producing one particular outcome (i.e. the termination of employment of an online moral transgressor).
Last, I argue that it is morally problematic conflate serial collectives with moral communities because of the outsized power it gives such collectives to bring about particular outcomes – especially those that cause significant emotional and financial distress to the targets of shame. Instead, social media users ought to engage in dialog and reason-exchange with one another, including moral transgressors, to bring about more restorative outcomes for victims and transgressors.
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