Online democracy has its pluses, but it also has a dark side

Online democracy doesn't always end with positive results, especially if you take off your rose-tinted glasses for a minute.
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A recent case of online pack mentality, where netizens came together to spread false and malicious rumors about a grieving family, really got me thinking. Online democracy doesn’t always end with positive results, especially if you take off your rose-tinted glasses for a minute.

The world has known about the online power of the people for a long time, where thousands and thousands of people have come together, through their keyboards, to force unfair companies or governments or whoever to do the right thing. Companies, particularly, are now extremely sensitive to online public backlash and often respond quickly to the demands of the collective when they misstep.

Online democracy in action seems to be hitting an all-time high lately with the advent and traction of #MeToo, a hashtag which leverages the might of ordinary people to bring down those in power who abuse them.

Other good examples of the people coming together include an entire Beijing family being saved from a suicide attempt after netizens tracked them down following the posting to Weibo of a suicide note on May 20 (see update below.)

But one case in China recently vividly highlighted the other side of the coin — there are times when the masses pooling together over a “cause” can be misguided, to put it lightly, leading to more damage than good.

A family from Taikang County, Henan Province, turned to the Internet to raise much-needed funds for the treatment of their 2-year-old daughter who was suffering from a form of eye cancer. Unfortunately the girl died after treatment, but what happened next really shocked me.

Somehow a story was concocted that accused the parents of cheating the public and using the money for other things.

These malicious rumors gained legs across cyberspace and even caught the attention of local police who launched an investigation which ultimately cleared the family of any wrongdoing.

Netizens across the country had to apologize after realizing that spreading such nasty rumors about a family already grieving the loss of their girl was at the least horrendous, and at worst dangerous.

The ironic thing is that the netizens involved probably felt they were doing a good thing, exposing indecency and illegal behavior for the greater good. They were probably bolstered by recent cases where the will of the people came crashing down on bad people and companies to make the world a better place.

But they were wrong. 

The little girl’s mother, already devastated by the type of loss no mother ever wants to experience, has had to retreat into her own safe place: a place with no Internet.

She is terrified of turning on her smartphone and hearing the lies spread about her online. She is terrified of having to face the backlash she received for something that never even happened.

“I feel terrible for spreading misinformation about a family who was already going through a tough time,” one netizen said. “I will definitely pay more attention to whether or not something online is true from now on.”

For once the words of netizens will fall on deaf ears.

It’s perhaps a timely reminder that with a voice comes great responsibility. The collective might of netizens can of course be used for good, but it can also cause harm and suffering.

That netizen was right to say he will pay a bit more attention to what he reads and spreads online in the future. It’s not always easy to verify whether something is true or not — and then there is truth from different perspectives, but that’s another story — but a bit of due diligence would go a long way.

Before you send off a Weibo post that accuses someone or some company of something terrible, do a little research, employ a bit of critical thinking, stop, and breathe.

You might just save someone a lot of pain.

Update: The family who were saved following a suicide attempt late last month attempted suicide again on May 31, with only one surviving. Although investigation continues, an official from Lanshan County, Hunan Province, where two of the family died, has partly blamed intense pressure from netizens for the second suicide.

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