The problem with judging people for their sins is that the internet makes it exceedingly easy to invent sins. In February, Buzzfeed News reported on a man filmed by a passing TikTokker, who then uploaded the footage with text suggesting he’d lied to her to get out of a date. That was false—he’d never met her—but it didn’t stop people from ridiculing him as the video racked up over a million views.
Similarly, last year, an Australian woman objected to being made the star of a stunt in which a TikTokker asked her to hold a bouquet, strolled off, and then congratulated himself on performing a random act of kindness. Sixty million hits later, his viewers were praising him for brightening the day of a woman they judged to be old, lonely, and sad. But she objected to that characterization and declared the whole affair “dehumanizing.” She hadn’t asked to have her day interrupted, let alone be thrust into a global spotlight.
And then there are those incapable of even grasping the situation. In 2022, a TikTok channel was called out for surreptitiously filming the homeless with drones. Loved ones with dementia are put on TikTok to be infantilized or have their worst moments gawked at. Parents transform their children into viral stars. Sometimes, those children grow up and call them out for warping their youth.
When people tell us it was harrowing and wrong to be unwillingly cast into the spotlight, we nod and agree. But those responsible typically offer only half-hearted apologies or remain unrepentant, while their millions of views discourage reflection. Often, moral scolding is implicit in the video and explicit in the comments: It is wrong to be homeless. It is gross to be ill. It is pathetic to be unhappy.
To be sure, crass and hateful public figures are worthy of ridicule. And we’ve been using the internet to judge strangers for as long as we’ve had the internet. But the common trait shared by much of the most obnoxious content today is that someone chose to elevate a stranger for no reason beyond their own gratification, attracting attention at a scale unimaginable in the days of relics like Hot or Not and People of Wal-Mart.
At best, these are misguided attempts to juice the poster’s social media presence. At worst, they are pointless cruelty. That cruelty can be addictive, but we can and must resist the urge to gawk at strangers against their will. It should, in fact, be considered rude, insulting, and wrong to have uploaded a stranger against their will. We would not go out into the streets and stir up a mob against a random person. Why are we so comfortable with doing it online?
Much of what we post online is innocent and will remain so. The average Facebook user has 338 friends, while the average number of Instagram followers, according to one estimate, is just 150. You likely use these platforms to follow celebrities and brands, and to interact with friends and family. These are, for most users, insular communities. Vacation photos with friends or a family portrait at Christmas are unlikely to attract trolls and creeps, and even if they do, they are clearly posted in good faith.