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The Internet Is a Redress Engine


On August 21st, 2010–a Saturday–Mary Bale picked up Lola the cat by the scruff of her neck, deposited her into a trash can, and put the lid down. Lola was trapped in the dark, without anything to eat or drink, for the next 15 hours. Her owners found her on Sunday morning, “terrified and covered in her own mess.”

In another century, that probably would have been the story’s end.

But this was the 21st century, and Lola’s owners had a security camera that monitored the front of their home. After finding Lola and reviewing the recordings, they posted a video on YouTube in an effort to uncover the cat-dumper’s identity.

Image credit: Alex Antener

The video went viral, and within hours the woman responsible was identified. That is, thoroughly identified. A group of internet vigilantes, originating largely from the 4chan message boards, published her name, age, address, and workplace. They also posted the name and phone number of her boss. And Mary Bale’s life was never quite the same again.

What happened here, exactly? Well, there’s a lot to dissect, and an anthropologist could certainly build a career on justice meted out by large crowds strangers working in tandem. But fundamentally, there are two factors at play:

1) Information technology, which allowed the incident to be documented and publicized, and which also allowed the strangers to work together in identifying Bale.

2) The strangers considered the act heinous enough to invest all that effort.

Since the day Lola the cat was avenged, the combination of the above two ingredients has resulted in group efforts on a level the world has never known before–both in scale and in scope.

Image credit: flickr user Veronica Belmont

Science fiction author and activist Cory Doctorow recently changed his mind about “the internet’s role in the struggle for global justice” after hearing Ethan Zuckerman’s ‘cute cats theory’.

The article in which Doctorow describes his shift in thinking is titled “The internet is the best place for dissent to start“. The ‘cute cats’ theory he mentions suggests that even though services like Facebook and Twitter are extremely unsuited to organizing protests in “hostile revolutionary settings”–since they expose their users to punishment by oppressive governments–they are nonetheless the best places for dissent to start.

The reason for this has to do with the enormous popularity of such services. When the average citizen takes a video of police brutality, for instance, he or she isn’t likely to seek out some tailor-made activist’s tool for disseminating the video. He or she is much more likely to post it on YouTube, which everyone uses. (Specifically, they use it to post videos of cute cats, or whatever else amuses/interests them.)

Also, when an oppressive government freaks out and takes down YouTube, a lot more people will notice than would have noticed if the government had taken down a small-scale activist website instead.

A postage stamp issued by the Tunisian transitional government with Bouazizi's likeness

Zuckerman supports his theory by pointing out that the first revolution of the Arab Spring–a wave of protests and demonstrations that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011–was touched off in Tunisia by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a produce vendor. Bouazizi had been beaten by police, who had also taken away his vegetable cart. An hour later he stood in the street and screamed, “How do you expect me to make a living?” Then he lit himself on fire.

Bouazizi’s woes were not unusual. Police brutality was common in Tunisia. And he was not the only one fed up. All of Tunisia had had enough of their oppressive government, and the urge to revolt spread not only to its borders, but beyond them.

Within a month, protests had begun in ten different countries. Many of the struggles that followed were characterized by government censorship–most notably in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak turned off the entire internet.

People noticed that. And the protests grew stronger.

So what do international protests against oppressive regimes have in common with the payback carried out against Mary Bale, the cat-trasher?

In both cases, a group of strangers considered the perpetrator’s behaviour heinous enough to seek redress–and their retribution was amplified by information technology.

Another example of this phenomenon came about earlier this month, during the fight against SOPA and PIPA, US legislation that threatened to cripple the global internet.

Once again, the response took on a scale never seen before. The internet-wide blackout constituted the largest online protest in history. And the very next day, American politicians abandoned the legislation in droves.

The Occupy movement is yet another example, which coordinates internationally but addresses issues on a local scale. Clearly, people are becoming more and more accustomed to challenging the powers that be on issues that are dear to them.

So what does this mean for the environmental movement?

At the World Future Energy Summit earlier this month, former US Energy Secretary and Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson called for “an Arab Spring for the environment“, in which youthful voices would make the case for renewable energy and environmentally-friendly practices across social media.

The pillage of the environment is well underway, and accelerating. It’s well-documented. The question is, will the most internet-savvy members of society come to see it as heinous enough to do something about?

If you’ve participated in group action to help right a wrong, tell us about it in the comments!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/31/2012 1:33 PM

    The internet to the uninformed is the home to societies deviants. A place where all off humanities evils and most primitive urges come to show. This is however incorrect.

    people don’t give other people enough credit. My initial belief that all people are inherently good, but want the freedom to be bad can not be exemplified by the internet any more than it already has.

    The internet strikes the unjust faster than any law can. All done voluntarily, all done through a co-op of hive minds, i would give examples, but scott’s article more than suffices.

    You see, the internet isn’t full of deviants, it’s young, and the operators of the internet are also young. So it’s not a deviant, it’s just a immature for the time being. Like an immature teenager, It’ll be rude, obnoxious, and sex obsessed, but it’s sense of justice and good is strong, unmoved, and nieve enough to show true conviction.

    the internet, though strange and maybe scary to those who don’t understand, shows that even when our identities is kept privet, us humans as a whole, at the end of the day, just want to do some good in this world.

    • 02/01/2012 9:30 AM

      Yeah, corporations like those that make up the entertainment industry like to claim the internet is the home of deviants, but that’s totally wrong. It’s increasingly becoming the home of everybody.

      I think you’re right in saying that the majority of internet users tend to be young. I’m excited to see what happens when the internet ‘comes of age’. Despite everything that’s changed over the past twenty years, the internet is still a pretty new technology, and youth are definitely most proficient in using it.

      I predict, though, that parts of the internet will always be rude/sex obsessed, for as long as children and adolescents have online anonymity. That’s not to say everyone behaves this way when they’re young–just that there’s usually a healthy segment that does.

      I find it heartening, too, that the internet is used so often for good–like when thousands of strangers form a decentralized legion of hackers (Anonymous). They’ve proven staunch defenders of free speech and fair play. Sure, they’ve done their fair share of trolling too, but even that often results in positive change. Members of the security industry, for instance, loved LulzSec for infiltrating so many companies, since it’s the only thing that has motivated businesses to finally take a hard look at internet security.

  2. 01/31/2012 10:44 PM

    Scott, while your earnest interest in a lady and her dump-truck cat is well documented, and you’re at least informed of certain U.S.-embroiled issues, however anfractuous your position is on them, let me say this:

    One, don’t be so damn dramatic, man: “Since the day Lola the cat was avenged, the combination of the above two ingredients has resulted in group efforts on a level the world has never known before–both in scale and in scope.” Really? Dude, take a humble pill. Your article smacks of naivety on all these issues.

    Give truth a chance and don’t jump such guns. Only a simpleton would go from the assumption that a cat’s misery is documented, that now we have a ground for assuming environmentalist doctrines. Sorry, Scott. Think it through.

    • Andrea permalink
      02/01/2012 12:12 AM

      Hm, that’s not the impression I got from reading Scott’s post. Lola’s assailant was identified thanks to new technology because a lot of strangers were outraged and took action. Scott is wondering whether other social media users might be similarly outraged by the crimes committed against the environment, and subsequently work together to do something about it, too.

      So no, it’s not that documenting one cat’s misery provides the grounds for believing the environment is being ruined. Rather, we now have proof that there is a lot of power in new technology, social media culture, and strangers coming together because of a shared sense of outrage. I think it’s valid to wonder whether this method might work for the environment, too.

      Choosing to disbelieve that the environment is being abused in the first place, well… that doesn’t negate the fact that social media might be a powerful tool for those of us who do believe it.

    • 02/01/2012 10:05 AM

      RK, my ‘earnest interest’ may be well documented, but it doesn’t seem like you read about it very carefully. Bale didn’t own the cat she imprisoned, and she didn’t put her in a dump truck–she put her in a garbage bin.

      My reason for recounting that story wasn’t to ‘assume’ “environmentalist doctrines”. It was to illustrate how easy it is, using the internet, for large groups of strangers to rally around a common cause. And I’m not sure what you mean by ‘doctrine’. Our environmental problems are pretty well documented, from the steep decline in biodiversity to the increase in average global temperature. But I’m not prescribing a doctrine. The possible solutions to our crises are diverse, and I’m not advocating for a specific set of them to be applied universally.

      If by “U.S.-embroiled issues” you mean they are limited to the US, I believe you’re mistaken. The incident with Lola the cat happened in the UK, Arab Spring took place in Arab countries, and Occupy is a worldwide movement. Yes, SOPA and PIPA were bills being considered in the US, but they also would have affected internet users and businesses outside that country, which is why the online protests were worldwide.

      This article, written by Canadian law professor Michael Geist, is useful in understanding how SOPA/PIPA would have affected those outside the US:

      I find your suggestion that I take a ‘humble pill’ intriguing. Are you under the impression that I’m claiming responsibility for these efforts? Curious. At any rate, they really are unprecedented in scope and in scale. For instance, Google “largest online protest in history” and see what you get.

      I enjoy having lively, respectful debates on my blog, and I appreciate opinions that differ from my own. But I don’t appreciate the implication that I’m a simpleton. You’re welcome to offer your opinion here, but if you resort to gratuitous name calling again, your commenting privileges will be revoked.

  3. Raven Warren permalink
    02/01/2012 10:40 PM

    The other day a professor of mine commented on how “Steve Jobs destroyed our world.” Although this may seem like a ridiculous idea, there are people who share the view that our new ways of communicating through computers have ruined our ability to communicate naturally. I think that point of view is backward, and I think this article portrays that very nicely. It isn’t just about the cat; it’s a comment on the significant influence our online community can have when there’s a message to be shared, big or small. I really enjoyed this post, Scotty.

    Perhaps not actually reading the article is the reason you weren’t able to understand that, RK. After reading your angry and insulting comment, I’m doubtful Scott is the dramatic one in need of humble pills. Think it through.

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