THROWING a puppy off a cliff? It would be hard to invent a better metaphor for cruelty. Small wonder then that when a video began circulating recently showing a U.S. Marine apparently doing just that, online communities the Web over erupted in anger and disgust.
It was a despicable and even shameful act, but the reaction was no better. Before any of the facts were established -- the Marine’s identity, for instance, or whether the video was some kind of hoax -- the cyber mob had its torches lighted, and the auto-da-fé had begun. Barely a day after the video surfaced, a Marine’s reputation was in tatters, his life threatened and his family terrorized.
The video goes like this: Two Marines are standing on a desert precipice in full battle gear. It could be in Iraq. One is holding a small, black-eyed puppy by the scruff of its neck.
“Cute little puppy, huh?” “Oh, so cute -- so cute!” coos the second Marine.
“Whoops, I tripped,” says the first and hurls the animal off the rocky incline. As it twirls in the air, you hear a series of heartbreaking yips.
“That’s mean,” says the second Marine. “That’s mean . . .,” he repeats, adding the thrower’s distinctive surname.
The Marines quickly began an investigation into the video and did not deny its authenticity. (Some viewers thought the puppy, which wasn’t moving before it was thrown, might’ve been dead already or just a doll.)
Because the video has been reposted so many times, its origin is hard to pinpoint. But a version posted to a Dutch website two days before the story gained wide attention is still online and has received nearly 500,000 views.
With no facts to fill the information vacuum, the online hordes moved straight to conjecture. The crowd found a Marine with the same last name who had a personal Web page on the social network Bebo.com. And that was all they needed; the accusations, slander and intimations of violence came like a tidal wave.
Someone tried to leave this comment on my Web Scout blog: “I hope he gets killed by insurgents and burned to death and thrown off a cliff.” I didn’t publish that or a dozen others like it, nor did I allow commenters to post the besieged Marine’s address and telephone number.
Not that it mattered: Internet vigilantes and a number of angry bloggers had already plastered the Web with the man’s contact information as well as the names, phone numbers and addresses of his mother and sister -- who in short order received a wave of harassing phone calls. The family eventually had its phone number disconnected.
“We feel like we’re living in a nightmare,” the Marine’s sister, who lives in Washington, told Seattle radio host Dori Monson. Her family, the sister said, had received multiple death threats related to her brother’s alleged -- but unsubstantiated -- participation in the video. “I do not want to confirm if this is real or not,” she said. “Because I don’t want to do anything to incriminate him.”
In his show, Monson called the family’s travail a “witch hunt.” “We’re talking about human lives that are not in any way connected to the video that’s inspired such anger,” he told listeners. “And people want to do to them what he did to the dog. I think this is a cautionary tale about how fast a life can get turned upside down on the Web.”
And he’s right. A presumption of innocence never entered the picture. It was straight to the gallows for the Marine and his family. No need for pesky facts or time-consuming due process -- the crowd’s appetite for revenge had to be sated.
The Internet is often credited for enabling new kinds of communication and, by extension, new social patterns. But there’s nothing new about vigilante justice.
In January, Wired’s Threat Level blog reported a case in which anti-Scientology hackers mistakenly targeted a 59-year-old Stockton man, thinking he had something to do with a cyber-attack on one of their websites. The man, who later said he didn’t “even really know how to use a computer,” had his phone numbers, address and wife’s Social Security number posted online. A series of harassing phone calls -- and at least one death threat -- followed.
If this kind of virtual lynching is going to be a part of the online landscape, innocent people are sure to be caught in the crossfire. And that will not be a triumph of progress.
Troops weigh in
THE response was more measured at sites for service personnel such as Military.com. Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy members -- many under their real names -- debated the video’s authenticity and significance and worried that the video could harm the reputation of men in uniform.
“If true, all the individuals who were there need to face legal action,” wrote a commenter who identified himself as a retired Air Force major. “The military doesn’t need the kind of publicity this kind of thing brings with it.”
Others felt the outrage was unwarranted: “I don’t know about your unit and training, but I was taught to view the enemy as something other than human because it makes them easier to kill,” wrote a commenter whose profile indicated he was a former Marine lance corporal. “If the allegations are true, he killed a defenseless animal and should be punished. But this throwing the book at him, simmer down people. It was a puppy, not a human baby.”
After the puppy video surfaced, the online crowd dug up several other online videos that appeared to depict service members engaged in other acts of violence against animals, including dogs and sheep being shot or tormented.
Might battlefield stress or military training play a role in such acts of cruelty? This is a touchy subject. UC Irvine’s Raymond Novaco, who studies include the relationship between anger and post-traumatic stress disorder and said he has been working with armed forces personnel for decades and has “great compassion for them,” said an event such as the one portrayed in the puppy video would be “very unusual.”
“If the incident even happened, I’d say it was a stretch to connect that with combat stress. The Marines don’t train people to do that.”.
What is clear is that, real or not, the puppy video has been a lose-lose situation for all parties. Even if it’s discredited, the Marines may find that the image of one of their men holding up the ill-fated puppy won’t be easily erased. And the men involved may find it can’t be erased at all.
But the biggest loser here is the Internet. As it becomes trivially easy to play vigilante without ever coming out from behind your sheet, too many people are confusing bravery with downright cowardice.