An Internet Ethics Case Study
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
On August 12, 2017, approximately 500 self-described “white nationalists” (some of them holding signs and flags with KKK and Nazi symbols) tried to hold a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The evening before, a smaller group with the same mindset marched through the campus of the University of Virginia, holding lit torches and chanting slogans like “Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” Both the march and the attempted rally ended in violence as the white nationalist protesters clashed with counterprotesters. A driver rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing one of them and wounding 19 others.
In response, an activist began to tweet out photos and videos from the events, asking other Twitter users to help identify the participants: “If you recognize any of the Nazis marching in #Charlottesville,” the tweet read, “send me their names/profiles and I'll make them famous #GoodNightAltRight.” Both on Twitter and on Facebook, people shared similar calls, and responded. A number of marchers were identified quickly. Within a day, at least one lost his job; another was publicly rebuked by his family members, who had themselves received a wave of online condemnation after his identification.
In at least two cases, people who had not been at the Saturday event were mistakenly identified by social media users; one of them subsequently told the New York Times that he “was quickly flooded with vulgar messages on Twitter and Instagram…. Countless people he had never met demanded he lose his job, accused him of racism and posted his home address on social networks.”
One of the people who was correctly identified was a University of Nevada student who also works for the university. A statement issued subsequently by the university’s president stated that the university “unequivocally rejects the positions and ideology that were espoused during the white supremacist rally,” but that, “based on discussion and investigation with law enforcement, our attorneys and our Office of Student Conduct, there is no constitutional or legal reason to expel him from our University or to terminate his employment.”
In The Atlantic magazine, a headline subsequently asked, “Is Being a White Supremacist Grounds for Firing?” The article’s subtitle read “Americans are pressuring employers to prove that hate speech has real consequences.”
The activist behind the @YesYoureRacist Twitter account, who first suggested the effort, was later quoted as saying, “I’m not trying to get anybody fired.... I’m not contacting anybody’s employers. But you know, if someone goes to a white supremacists’ rally and their employer sees them, … that’s something they probably should have thought about.”
Was it ethical for social media users to play a part in identifying the white nationalist protesters and highlighting their involvement in the Charlottesville events? Does the answer depend on the particular actions taken—for example, was the sharing of photographs of a public event different from posting individuals’ personal information online, or from contacting those individuals’ employers? How might these actions be perceived through the ethical prisms of utilitarianism, rights, justice, virtue, and the common good? For more about these ethical perspectives, please see this article about ethical decision-making and the considerations that we should keep in mind when faced with ethical questions.