The tweet heard 'round the world was posted last Saturday morning at nine a.m.
"If you recognize any of the Nazis marching in #Charlottesville," the Twitter user @YesYoureRacist wrote
, "send me their names/profiles and I'll make them famous #GoodNightAltRight."
The account quickly went viral as shocking images of Saturday's white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, made the rounds on the news and social media. Videos showed neo-Nazis and white nationalists donning swastikas, carrying tiki torches, chanting "white lives matter" and the Nazi-era slogan "blood and soil,” and beating counterprotesters
. At least nineteen people were injured and thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car allegedly driven by neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. rammed into a crowd of counterprotesters
In a news conference later that day, Donald Trump refused to explicitly condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, instead blaming the chaos on "many sides" (a sentiment he repeated even more brashly in a press conference later that week). Prominent white nationalist leaders gleefully weighed in on Trump's tepid remarks.
"No condemnation at all,” The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, opined
. “When asked to condemn, [Trump] just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
People were horrified—appalled not just by the violence but also by the president's inability to be a moral leader in a time of crisis.
Then came the local Twitter sensation @YesYoureRacist. Run by Raleigh resident and Progress NC communications director Logan Smith, the account posted photos of the white nationalists participating in the protest and enlisted Twitter's help to identify them. The responses poured in, and, over the course of a few days, online sleuths successfully outed a number of rally participants: Berkeley Top Dog employee Cole White, who resigned from his job after his attendance was made public; Peter Cvjetanovic, a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who told a news station he "wasn't the angry racist" people saw in his photo; and Peter Tefft, who was disowned by his family in a North Dakota newspaper.
Smith’s account quickly gained hundreds of thousands of followers. But he wasn’t the only one seeking to name and shame white supremacists—sometimes with unfortunate results. Which raises a question: What happens when a social media campaign outs
the wrong person?
That's what happened with Kyle Quinn, a professor of engineering at the University of Arkansas, who was enjoying a quiet weekend when he learned he had been incorrectly identified on social media as one of the torch-carrying white nationalists. How did that happen? Pretty simple. One of the men at the rally was photographed wearing a red “Arkansas Engineering” shirt, and then somebody dug up a photo of Quinn that bore a resemblance to the man in the photo. Both had light brown hair, a similar build, and the same facial hair. And then the mob was unleashed.
An unassuming Quinn soon found himself
on the receiving end of Internet fury, his social media accounts inundated
with angry and threatening messages. People demanded Quinn be fired from his job and posted his home address online. To err on the side of caution, Quinn and his wife stayed at a friend's house over the weekend.
In an email, Logan Smith told the INDY
he did not post anything about Quinn because he determined early on that he was not the same person that was photographed at the rally,
and even asked people who were sending Quinn's info his way to stop because it was clear they were two different people.
But that incident raises an important question that social media users should take note of in the age of online mob justice: What are the implications, legal and otherwise, of misidentifying someone like Quinn on social media?
It's certainly not uncommon for journalists and social media users to post with less discretion on Twitter and Facebook—especially in the middle of quickly breaking news—than they might if they were, say, writing
a newspaper article. But that doesn't mean that they're not still accountable in the same ways. If a print or online news publication wrongly identified Quinn without reaching out to him, it could be subject to a defamation lawsuit. And although social media often feels like the wild west and a format totally apart from more traditional media outlets, the law doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"Social media may be a new landscape, but the old rules still apply,"
Jonathan Jones, instructor of media law at Elon University and director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. "If you wrongly identify someone as having attended that rally, then you run a really deep risk of defamation. Because you’re associating that person with neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the worst our society has to offer. That would be classic libel."
Jones pointed to a number of cases that have already been brought against social media users (including an active case against Trump for his social media use during his presidential campaign). Most notably, he referred to a high-profile Twitter libel case brought against Courtney Love by her former attorney, who claimed that the musician defamed her in a tweet. Love ultimately ended up winning the potentially precedent-setting case (dubbed "Twibel,"), and Jones says he's not aware of any successful Twitter libel cases to date.
But, Jones notes, there have been some successful libel cases on Facebook—including a Facebook defamation case in Asheville that resulted in a $500,000 settlement.
"When these cases are successful, they can be quite valuable," Jones says. "If we do see a successful libel question on twitter, the size of the following, the number of retweets, might amplify the potential award for the person bringing the case."
Which is all to say that social media users should proceed with caution in the heat of the moment. Yes, there haven't been any precedent-shattering Twitter libel cases yet, but that doesn't mean there won't be any in the future. And that applies to journalists, too—especially in breaking news situations.
"As someone who teaches media law and teaches students how to avoid libel lawsuits, from time to time I see things that really sort of make my jaw drop," Jones says. "The law makes no distinction between the story you worked ten hours writing and five days reporting and between the one-hundred-and-forty-character tweet that you spent thirty seconds on. The liability is the same for either."