The Cyber Witch Hunt

Cyber Witch Hunt 1

They’re now so common that most of us have witnessed at least one as a live event during our cyberspace travels. We look on in borderline disbelief as a mind-boggling array of angry souls pile in to essentially re-word the same acidic criticism, punctuated only by the odd tirade of abuse, and a passing troll chipping in with a timely popcorn-chomping GIF.

The target, meanwhile, stands alone, quite possibly driven offline. What we’re seeing, is the cyber witch hunt – an ugly manifestation of sustained online gang pursuit and attack. The core characteristic is a sense of gross imbalance, in which just one person – metaphorically “the witch” – is persistently targeted by a growing mob.

As the mob expands from its organised nub, an increasing proportion of its members display an ignorance of the facts or detail of the issue at hand. This illustrates that in truth, many latecomers have unrelated motives for joining the crusade. Commonly, they’re seeking digital applause, and ultimately, they hope, can raise their own profile. Envy is another typical motivator. Cyber witch hunts normally present themselves as moral crusades, but conveniently remain blind to the moral bankruptcy of scores, hundreds or even thousands of people ganging up on one individual.


Faleena Hopkins is a romantic fiction writer who trademarked a word she was using as an effective brand in her book titles, then asserted her right to the trademark over other authors who were using it. Her stance is that after she’d achieved success using the term ‘cocky’ as a title theme, a range of other authors began adopting the word in their titles too. This, she alleges, not only muscled in on her intellectual property, but also confused readers into buying books by other authors when they intended to buy hers.

But a burgeoning group of dissenters (mainly fiction authors themselves, it appears) have argued that ‘cocky’ was too common and genre-integral a word to trademark. Further, they believe it was unfair for Hopkins to insist, on pain of lawsuit, that other authors change the titles of books they’d already published. The gang has taken a vigilante approach, deliberately sabotaging Hopkins’ online ratings, as well as persistently hounding her with caustic, vengeful, repetitive, and sometimes abusive messages.

In my view of the picture as an impartial observer, the gang’s issue is really with the law, or the decision of the Trademarks Office. But it’s much easier to vilify one publicly-accessible individual who’s out in the open on the social web, than it is to vilify the law or the Trademarks Office. A bestselling author is also, in my opinion, a likely subject of envy, and becomes a more urgent target on that basis.

Whilst the mob has candidly set out to damage Hopkins’ career, and has, according to the author herself, inflicted damage, the witch hunt has also raised her profile. When witch hunts gather momentum, they tend to generate a lot of SEO backlinks, which help the target to rank on the search engines. That’s how I discovered who Faleena Hopkins is.

Witch Hunt 2

I know absolutely nothing about romantic fiction and haven’t the slightest interest in reading it. And yet here I am contributing to the publicity of one of its authors, whose name I would not have known if an online mob hadn’t amassed against her. Bad publicity still ends up spreading a name in ways that are not necessarily negative. That can mean the mob ends up achieving the opposite to its goal. The mob can make someone they want to be less famous, more famous. Or more prosperous. They may even engineer a U-turn in their target’s fortunes.

A clear example of the latter was evidenced in the case of Nikki Smith – a mother who set up a crowdfunding page to collect £5,000 for her kids’ holiday. Smith’s story made the mainstream press after a cyber witch hunt branded her a scrounger and prompted her to take down the page.

I’ve stumbled upon quite a few of these GoFundMe, JustGiving and Fundrazr collections. Even when launched by high-profile individuals with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, they can make as little as £10 or £20. It depends on what the collection is for, the perceived financial means of the intended recipient, and sometimes how much the public feel the need to ingratiate themselves to the fundraiser. But people are typically switched on when it comes to money, and they won’t in general put their cash into anything they don’t feel will have some positive effect.

In the case of Nikki Smith, it was initially a grim tale. She’d amassed a bare £10 and decided to abandon her campaign, when the magnitude of the mob anger against her propelled the story into mainstream consciousness. After hitting the news and detecting signs of sympathy, she re-launched the campaign and collected two grand within one day. She subsequently exceeded her original target amount by nearly 50%.

Witch hunts make the mob’s target into a victim, provoking sympathy for the target, rather than their cause. Even if there is some substance to the mob’s gripes, it comes to be overwhelmed by the ugliness of their persistent kicking. Unless the target is in a position of great power, or has done something reprehensibly illegal, you can’t have a hundred-on-one attack, in which it doesn’t appear that the one is being victimised and bullied.

I don’t know enough about the individuals named above to either support or disapprove of them as people, and I’m not making any judgements, good or bad. I’ve included these ‘everyday’ cases to illustrate the way cyber witch hunts work, and the effects they have.

Witch Hunt 3

Obviously, there are much higher profile cases, which have involved shocking levels of abuse, prejudice, death threats, etc. But they all stem from the same mob mentality. People wanting approval and peer applause, wanting to be part of the zeitgeist – to fit in with what seems like popular opinion. There is often a drive of real anger, but it’s probably more related to the angry parties’ own situations. You’re unlikely to be angry about a mother wanting a free holiday with the kids if you’re a multi-millionaire without a care in the world. The anger comes more from what we don’t have, than what other people do.


The problem with witch hunts is that the collective is very much more severe than the way things appear to individual members of the mob. The mob member perceives that he/she is just expressing his or her opinion, and may not even consider how many others are involved, or what the collective effect could be.

To steer clear of joining witch hunts, it’s vital to think carefully before expressing any negative opinions about lone individuals on the open Internet – whether to their face or elsewhere.

Governments, media and big businesses are gangs themselves. They expect, and are equipped to deal with mass disapproval. Individuals don’t, and are are not. This is not to say that individuals should be allowed to behave any way they like without being called to account. We’re all accountable for what we do. But that includes thinking hard about the online criticisms we make of others, especially with regard to the following…

  • Do we fully understand all the facts? How do we know any accusations we make, or that others have made, are true? Particularly online, the tendency for people to take a side in issues they know next to nothing about, just for the sake of being involved, is extensive.
  • Is the person we intend to criticise actually our real issue, or just the most convenient target?
  • Has our criticism already been made by others, and if so how many?
  • Has the person we intend to critcise already complained about being harassed, victimised or bullied?
  • Is our assessment of this matter, and our response to it, proportionate? How does the matter rank on the world’s grand scale of negative issues? Repeatedly yelling abuse at a reality contest singer for being lazy, whilst blind-eyeing people who torture animals for fun, is not proportionate.
  • Are we influenced by any other factors? Be honest – is this really about making a positive change, or are we after other people’s approval, avenging a rejection, or assuaging our envy? If we’re just wishing we had the status, power or guts of the person we’re set to attack, then the solution is to spend the time self-improving, not attacking.

Witch Hunt 4

In the most sobering of conclusions, I want to draw attention to the case of August Ames – a 23-year-old adult entertainer who committed suicide in 2017, immediately after comments she made on Twitter provoked a group attack. You can read the details elsewhere, but the truth is that if a mob attack amasses against the wrong person, at a bad time, ‘trial by social media’ can end in the ultimate tragedy. The fact that some of August Ames’ attackers deleted their tweets after her death, showed how little real commitment they had to what they were saying. It was just a means for them to garner popular approval, and they were as quick to try and do that after the tragedy as they were before it. If you’re pretending you didn’t say something, rather than expressing remorse, you are, and always were, in the wrong.

It shouldn’t take a suicide to wake us up to the ugliness of our behaviour. We don’t know anyone’s state of mind but our own. So above all else, before you join a personal kicking fest on the Internet, ask yourself:

“If the target of my criticism committed suicide tomorrow, would I delete what I said?”

If your answer is anything but an unshakeable “no”, you should NOT be making that comment.