Hehir on Internet fury


From time to time you happen to stumble upon a concept that so clarifies an aspect of the human condition that you can’t help seeing it everywhere afterwards. This happened earlier in the year when a podcast by pseudonymous blogger Ace of Spades introduced me to the idea of “altruistic punishment”.

The subject was raised in connection with a discussion of novelist Douglas Preston’s book Trial by Fury. The book is about Amanda Knox, the American woman wrongfully imprisoned in Italy after being accused of murdering her flatmate in 2007. Knox was exonerated in March this year, which is good given the enormous holes in the case against her (which Preston’s book documents in convincing fashion).

In many ways, however, the most interesting part of Trial by Furycomes at the end, when the author discusses the unflinching hatred of Knox evinced by many people he encountered on the internet. No matter what the evidence showed, many had an unshakeable – almost religious – belief in the need for Knox to be punished.

This is what led Preston to the phenomenon of altruistic punishment which, briefly stated, is the manner in which people will punish perceived wrongdoers despite not personally being affected by the wrongdoing. Brain scans show that when we punish somebody for violating a social norm, we are rewarded with feelings of self-satisfaction. This is what drives us to stick up for people being bullied, report shoplifters to store security and castigate people who park in disabled people’s parking spaces. 

Most of us have done that.

It goes without saying that this instinct is a good and necessary thing. It is easy to see how altruistic punishment is an essential ingredient of any justice system – and is therefore a big part what allows us to build and live together in civilisations. The desire to punish wrongdoers is therefore part of what makes us human. In fact, this is so much the case that no other animals, including chimpanzees, punish third-party offenders in this way.

What Preston was interested in was the idea that the internet can overload this sense of righteousness, leading users to take leave of their sense of proportion. There’s a lot to be said for the idea. …

An entirely foreseeable result of this is that zealous punishers have little trouble finding each other, feeding off one another and organising themselves into digital mobs to mete out digital mob justice.

And that’s how people like Sir Timothy Hunt lose their jobs.

Hunt is a Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist and cancer researcher. A few weeks ago, at a conference in Korea, he gave a talk to an audience of female scientists. An audience member tweeted parts of his talk that – as reported – included sexist observations about men and women working together in laboratories.

The rise of the virtual lynch mob.  His career was destroyed because of this.

Now that a transcript has been leaked, however, we can his remarks were made with ironic intent. Lame though the joke may have been, it was actually part of a larger observation about the importance of getting women into the sciences.  And instead of attacking women, Hunt’s poor attempt at humour was actually aimed at himself and his own supposed reputation for chauvinism.

Oh yeah – it also turns out that “after the fact” media vetting of Hunt’s principal accuser raises serious questions about her reliability.

But to update a saying of Mark Twain, outrage will go round the world while context is pulling its boots on. The man has been personally destroyed and his career is in ruins. UCL has said that reappointing Hunt now would “send entirely the wrong signal”.

Personally, I’m not convinced that bringing Hunt’s cancer research to an end will make the world a better place – however unwise his words were.

People need to start understanding that fury on Twitter, is not the same as fury in the real world. Every hour of every day there is a group of people getting outraged on Twitter. Just leave them to it.


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