Brace Yourself, Here Comes the Digital Mob Justice

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the case of the Applebee’s server who was fired for posting a photo of a receipt that had some rude comments from a customer. (If you haven’t, here’s a brief recap.) After news of the firing spread, people took to their computers to voice their disapproval of both Applebee’s and the rude customer, protest the server’s firing, and threaten Applebee’s with boycotts. Applebee’s certainly did itself no favors with how it handled the fiasco, but even so, The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf found the vitriol directed at the restaurant chain disturbing, and possibly even damaging to its innocent employees:

[R]eading about the tens of thousands of anti-Applebee’s Facebook comments, the disdainful mockery of its social media response, and the many people insisting that they now intend to boycott the restaurant, I can’t help but marvel at the angry digital mob. I’ve already written that I wish the waitress would be rehired. I hope she quickly finds an even better job.

But there are roughly 2,000 Applebee’s locations in the United States. The company employs approximately 28,000 people. As a general matter, do those employees fare better or worse than workers at comparable companies? The vast majority of people raging against it have no clue. For all they know, Applebee’s generally treats its workers with admirable fairness and respect; they’re nevertheless directing maximal, knee-jerk outrage against the national chain for one termination—not a pattern of sexual harassment, or tip skimming by management, or unsafe working conditions, or damaging environmental pollution, but a judgment call about a single employee.

He continues:

But the anti-Applebee’s rage is arbitrary and out of all proportion to the events that transpired, and that’s problematic for reasons that transcend unfairness to Applebee’s, a chain that could disappear tomorrow without me minding. The extraordinary anger being generated has more to do with the incident’s viralness than the magnitude of the company’s bad behavior. As a result, corporations across America aren’t thinking, “We’d better avoid perpetrating really bad behavior,” they’re thinking, “We’d better avoid any situation that involves our company getting viral publicity.”

Or, as Rod Dreher puts it, “[I]t is scary to think about how the digital mob can menace an individual who may have made an indefensible lapse in judgment, as Pastor Bell did.”

The Applebee’s fiasco isn’t the first time that people have used their collective online might to shame, belittle, and beleaguer those who ventured beyond the pale. (Remember Lindsey Stone, the girl who lost her job last year after a photo of her acting disrespectfully at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier earned the Internet’s ire?)

It’s oh so easy to vent and rant online. We already feel uninhibited due to our perceived anonymity on the Internet, and all it takes is a few keystrokes and mouse clicks to voice our opinion. Add to that a healthy dose of righteous indignation, which is especially prevalent in a situation like that of the Applebee’s customer (a self-proclaimed pastor whose comment was disrespectful and self-righteous).

But perhaps a situation like this, and any other time you want to address a perceived injustice from the comfort of your Facebook account, should also be an opportunity for reflection. Go ahead and post your righteous indignation, but remember that you, too, have probably said or done something that, were you unfortunate enough to have it done in a public forum, would earn similar rage from your fellow netizens.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Ouch. Well put. I often worry about what might come back out to bite me, what will go up on Reddit, or viral on Yahoo. Of course, that calls to mind the ever-watchful eye of God. We live every day of our lives under his gaze, but for a lot of it, the internet is what strikes terror of judgment in our hearts. Weird world.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Finally our rash love affair with democracy begins to fade.

  • Barbara Warren

    I got disgusted with Applebees when one of its main franchise owners said he would fire a bunch of employees if Obamacare were implemented. This latest firestorm had no effect on that opinion, but did confirm it.


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