Port: Social media justice seems a lot like mob justice
MINOT, N.D. — I can't stop thinking about Kipp Gabriel.
Before I read Chris Hagen's article about his death, I'd never heard of Gabriel despite his regional celebrity as a Fargo-based hip-hop performer.
He was found dead this week just days after a group of women took to social media to accuse him of sexual assault, something which had resulted in no small amount of online and offline vitriol aimed at Gabriel.
I can't speak to the veracity of those accusations. Or how Gabriel's life came to an end. As I write this, the official word from law enforcement is that foul play is an unlikely explanation. His father, Ken Gabriel, believes the accusations against his son were a factor in his death.
"He was the heart of our family. His relationship with people, his push for no drugs and no drinking, he was just totally against all that. It was all about love, and bad things making his relationship break up, and it was all about that. He couldn't stand it. The texts he was getting, I think he could handle it. It was losing his girlfriend," he told Hagen.
"I think it wasn't the women sharing their stories, it was the comments. I think it was just the unchecked contempt of people sharing and being reactionary," Kipp's long-time friend and co-performer Diane Miller told Hagen. "I think it's possible that cyberbullying went too far."
This situation makes me think of another one, from another summer five years ago. A man named Kirk Ludwig was taking pictures in Fargo's Island Park, near where some swimsuit-clad women and children were enjoying a public pool. A Facebook user thought Ludwig was taking photos of the swimmers, and so confronted him while recording video on his cellphone.
He uploaded the video, and a howling mob formed calling for violence. There were thousands of comments and hundreds of shares of the video. Even a local law enforcement officer wrote a comment saying someone should have "stomped his guts out."
But none of these people contacted law enforcement. The first person to get in touch with the cops was Ludwig himself, who went to the police because he was, understandably, terrified . I don't know what Ludwig was taking pictures of that day, but then neither did the Facebook mob who were demanding physical harm for the man even as not one of them contacted authorities about their concerns.
This line from Hagen's report on Kipp's death jumped out at me: "Officials with the Fargo and Moorhead police departments said the departments have no records of reports related to allegations of sexual wrongdoing involving Kipp Gabriel."
Kipp got excoriated in the court of public opinion, yet nobody initiated the legal process which might lead to an actual courtroom.
Our society is very focused on social justice these days, and it's remarkable how often social justice resembles mobs of angry people.
Actual justice requires things like due process and a presumption of innocence until guilt is established. Modern reforms to the criminal justice system are also very focused on giving those found guilty a path back to redemption.
The social justice movement seems to have little patience for these things.
The problem is not the victims of harassment or discrimination or assault speaking out, though I'm not sure the preference for social media statements, as opposed to engaging the criminal justice system, is wise. Because the problem is the way the court of public opinion, empowered and amplified by social media, handles those accusations.
Myopic politics are a problem, too. A particular faction of the American electorate implores us to "trust" and "believe" women when they accuse, which completely glosses over the fact that sometimes women make false accusations.
Our country has a particularly ugly history when it comes to accusations against racial minorities, as one example.
Harper Lee portrayed this sad legacy with the plight of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird , perhaps one of the greatest works of American literature . Emmett Till's tragic death is a real-world example of the sort of injustice that can be perpetrated by mobs.
Again, I have no idea if the accusations against Kipp Gabriel are true or not. Kipp denied them. "It is absolutely not true," he said when contacted by a reporter days before his death. "It pains me because terrible things have been said. I do respect women speaking their truth and I'm not trying to silence women, but in this situation, there's more context to it than just a string of anonymous posts."
Kipp's not around to defend himself anymore. Not in the court of public opinion, nor a court of law.
Maybe, if we were a bit more focused on real justice instead of social media justice, it wouldn't be that way.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com .