Cyber Mobs, Disinformation, and Death Videos: The Internet As It Is (and As It Should Be)
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
Fiction and visual representations can alter our understanding of human experiences and struggles. They help us understand human frailties and suffering in a visceral way. Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina does that in spades. In Sabrina, a woman is murdered by a misogynist, and a video of her execution is leaked. Conspiracy theorists deem her murder a hoax. A cyber mob smears the woman’s loved ones as crisis actors, posts death threats, and spreads their personal information. The attacks continue until a shooting massacre redirects the cyber mob’s wrath to other mourners. Sabrina captures the breathtaking velocity of disinformation online and the rapid escalation to terroristic threats.
Every day, people are radicalized online to wreak havoc and violence. On August 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas, a twenty-one-year old man posted a racist manifesto on 8chan and then walked into a Wal Mart with a powerful rifle, killing 20 people and injuring many others. The killer trafficked in and engaged with others in hateful conspiracy theories.
Drnaso invites a conversation about cyber mobs, conspiracy theories, and death videos and the norms, attitudes, and laws enabling them. Right now, it is cheap and easy to wreak havoc online and for that havoc to go viral. Platforms act rationally — some might say responsibly to their shareholders — when they tolerate abuse that earns them advertising revenue and costs them nothing in legal liability. Combatting cyber-mob attacks must be a priority. Law should raise the cost of cyber-mob attacks. It is time for tech companies to redress some of the negative externalities of their business model. Platforms should not enjoy immunity from liability for user-generated content unless they have earned that immunity with reasonable content moderation practices. Education should play a role as well. As digital citizens, we need to do better.