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10 Attempts At Internet Vigilantism That Made Things Worse

by Morris M.
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Let’s face it—at least 90 percent of us on the Internet secretly wish we were Batman. Trapped in a hostile world where awful things happen to undeserving people, the desire to dispense some quick fist-based justice is almost overpowering. That’s why it’s so easy to organize an Internet lynch mob. We all want to make the world a better place, even if we can’t be bothered to leave our house to do so. However, not every attempt at online vigilantism snags a Dog Poop Lady or a sniggering cat abuser. Usually, it just serves to make the Punisher-wannabees among us look like total idiots.

10 The Red Lobster Racist Doesn’t Exist

There are two behaviors in life that will mark you out forever as a jerk to the civilized world: being a total racist and refusing to tip. Therefore, when a local yokel in Tennessee apparently indulged in both over the course of a single meal, the world decided to take revenge. Armed with a copy of his receipt—complete with name, partial credit card number, and hastily-scrawled racist insult—the Internet tracked down Devin Barnes and made his life miserable. So far, so much schadenfreude, right? Well, there’s actually a pretty good chance Barnes is totally innocent.

A couple of months ago, it emerged that Barnes had hired a forensic court document examiner to analyze his handwriting against the racist slur on the receipt. They didn’t match. Nor did the insult match his the handwriting of his wife, the only other person with Barnes at the table. Although he admits not leaving a tip, the racist incident appears to be a hoax. Barnes is now suing the restaurant in question for allowing keyboard warriors to ruin his life.

9 Reddit Mercilessly Attacks a Charity Fundraiser

Say what you want about Reddit, but the site’s users have a good track record with supporting charitable causes. That’s why people get so upset about scammers there—anyone that generous on the Internet is likely to have been burned at least once. But just occasionally, that anti-scammer vigilance tips over into accidentally unleashing the forces of hell on a real fundraiser.

It all started when 21-year-old Maya Gilsey decided to collect donations towards her cancer charity fundraiser via PayPal instead of a dedicated donation site. Unfortunately, this is the exact sort of thing scammers do, so when she started posting on Reddit to solicit donations, people got suspicious. They were so suspicious, in fact, that they bombarded her Facebook account, reported her to the FBI for fraud, forced her fundraising website offline, and began threatening her boyfriend. At that point, Gilsey logged back into Reddit and proved her fundraising story beyond a shadow of a doubt. At least this one has a happy ending—chastised Redditors then donated $300 to her obviously real cause.

8 Misinterpreted Comment Gets Two People Fired

Sexism is a big problem within the tech world, so when developer Adria Richards found herself sat at a conference in front of two guys making jokes about “big dongles” and “forking” someone’s “repo,” she evidently decided enough was enough. Taking a quick picture of the pair behind her, Richards tweeted their comments to the entire world, triggering a storm of outrage that culminated in one of the men losing his job. The problem? Richards had totally misunderstood what the guys were talking about.

In a message board post a few days after the incident, the one who lost his job explained the context of their conversation. Like most close friends on the planet, he and his friend had developed their own code words for stuff. For them, the term “forking your repo” simply meant being impressed by someone. There was zero sexual context—the sexist element was simply imagined by Richards and her followers, who went on to hound an innocent person from their job. Sorry, make that two people—as a result of this debacle, Richards was also fired.

7 Spike Lee Orders A Lynch Mob For The Wrong House

You probably remember George Zimmerman. A few months back, the Florida-based neighborhood patrol man shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. After a long and bitter trial, Zimmerman was acquitted—a move that left a lot of people feeling outraged. Chief among those outraged people was film director Spike Lee, who responded by tweeting Zimmerman’s address along with an incitement to violence.

The problem was that the address Lee provided didn’t belong to Martin’s killer at all. Instead of directing a lynch mob to the house of a young murder trial defendant, he’d sent it to the home of a sweet old couple whose son shared a name with the shooter. Unsurprisingly, these innocent pensioners were soon bombarded with death threats and wound up fearing for their lives. By way of apology, the multimillionaire director chucked some money at them—but evidently not very much, as the couple are now suing him for a paltry $15,000.

6 Reddit Mercilessly Attacks a Sexual Assault Victim

In 2011, a Reddit user known as “theoculus” posted a photo of herself with a great, gaping face wound. She explained she’d incurred the injury when a guy very nearly raped her the night before. Presumably expecting sympathy, what she got instead were death threats and a ton of people crying “fake!”

After one Redditor found a video of theoculus putting on zombie makeup, he surmised that she’d faked the wound. Others found a comic she’d drawn that was critical of rape culture and suggested she’d faked the attack to further her own “anti-rape agenda.” (You know, to counter all those pro-rape agendas.) Eventually, theoculus became the target of a hate campaign that included death threats and only backed off when she washed her wound on camera to prove it wasn’t bogus.

5 Peaches Geldof Outs A Sexual Abuse Survivor

There are some pretty strict laws in place surrounding UK child abuse trials. For instance, it is very illegal to release any information that may lead to the child being identified—including the name of their parents. That’s true even if the parents themselves may have been the abusers.

That brings us to the horror of the Ian Watkins trial. The lead singer of now-defunct band The Lost Prophets recently pleaded guilty to the attempted rape of a baby, an admission made all the worse by the revelation that two mothers had knowingly handed their newborns over to him. Understandably, the public were shocked by the behavior of the mothers even more than that of Watkins, and people began clamoring for the release of their names. Since this would be illegal, the police said no, but they weren’t counting on the might of Peaches Geldof.

With a lack of foresight that borders on the criminal, Geldof acquired and tweeted the names of the mothers to her 160,000 followers. Suddenly, thousands of people without the inclination to otherwise dig the information up could publicly identify the abused children, undoubtedly making it harder for them to forget about or learn to deal with the assault in the future. In her quest for Twitter justice, Peaches basically added to the future misery of these kids—more or less exactly the opposite of what she intended.

4 Pedophile Hunters Accidentally Help Pedophiles

We’ve previously reported on the rise of charities and organizations setting up fake underage chat room accounts to entrap pedophiles. What we didn’t mention is that private individuals are getting in on it, too. Across America, Australia, and Europe, vigilantes are posing as children online to identify potential molesters. According to the police, this behavior is actually helping the very people they’re trying to catch.

You see, these vigilantes are operating outside the law to begin with. This means that most of them consider alerting police forces secondary to getting video of suspects up on their YouTube channel. That means that any real abuser they do happen to record during a “sting” can calmly head home and completely destroy any evidence before the police get there. In other words, their supposedly heroic actions can easily result in child molesters avoiding prison, as well as alerting the abuse community to the presence of fake accounts in chat rooms.

3 The Twitter Abuse Debacle

Only a very tiny handful of people know what it’s like to have the whole Internet out to get them. The person who dressed as a bombing victim for Halloween is one, as is the Cat Bin Lady. Another is Lord McAlpine.

In November last year, a man who’d been abused as a child contacted the BBC to publicly name the abuser. The BBC filmed a special report, only to pull the program at the last minute because of legal worries. Enraged that the shadowy pedophile had apparently gotten away with it, roughly a trillion people took to Twitter to name and shame Lord McAlpine.

Of course, McAlpine turned out to be totally innocent. The abuse victim had named the wrong person, and now the entire Internet was exploding to hunt down and kill a man who had done nothing wrong. Even after a police statement and a successful libel suit against those who re-tweeted his name, McAlpine continues to be harassed all over the Internet.

2 The Internet Makes Steubenville Worse

killer and victim
Remember the Steubenville rape case? It was a grand indictment of everything that can go wrong with small-town culture—a case of cover-ups, victim-shaming, and lazy cops refusing to prosecute the local kids who’d filmed themselves raping a drunk 16-year old. It was only when the Internet finally got involved that justice was done, but according to Steubenville prosecutor Jane Hanlin, that same involvement may well have ruined the victim’s life.

In an article for The New Yorker, she pointed out that what had once been an incident known to only a handful of people eventually reached an audience of 500 million. A significant number of that 500 million had seen videos and photos of the abuse, and are also aware of the victim’s name. As Hanlin put it, “Because the girl’s name was leaked, her identity on the Internet is linked to the worst experience of her life.” Any future employers, college admissions officers, or even friends who Google her will be confronted with those same photos. In short, her name and face will forever be publicly linked to a horrific crime and some seriously degrading images—not ideal if she ever decides she’d like to move on and forget about the worst night of her life.

1 Reddit And the Boston Bomber

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit decided to do some detective work and solve the case. Despite the FBI warning that such speculation was unhelpful and possibly dangerous, a large sub-Reddit was created to comb through footage of the day’s events and identify “suspects.” One of these so-called suspects just happened to be Sunil Tripathi, a missing 22-year-old student who would later be found drowned in a Rhode Island river. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned, being a suspect on the Internet gives the world free rein to threaten your grieving family.

Only hours away from learning that their son was dead, Tripathi’s parents first had to watch as people flooded a Facebook page set up to find him with porly-spelled insults, then endure crank phone calls and a hostile media scouting their house for an entire night. In the end, Tripathi was innocent and Tsarnaev wound up being apprehended in a violent shootout—but not before some vigilantes made life miserable for an undeserving family. Maybe we should all think hard next time before picking up our pitchforks.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Morris M.

Morris M. is Listverse's official news human, trawling the depths of the media so you don't have to. He avoids Facebook and Twitter like the plague.