Two time US pairs champion John Coughlin was recently suspended from figure skating after allegations of misconduct surfaced on social and traditional media. On January 4th, a YouTube channel called The Skating Lesson uploaded a screenshot of the allegations to Facebook. Social media took over and mobbed the 33-year-old man. They called him an abuser, pervert, and a rapist. Fourteen days later, Coughlin went to his father’s house in Kansas City, fastened a noose, and ended his life.
Coughlin’s coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, blamed the social justice mob for his death. She told the Daily Mail that “being shunned for allegations not proven was something I knew was hard for him to live with, but the mere rumor of assault and not being given the chance to defend himself is what sent him over the edge.”
I have no idea if Coughlin was guilty of the allegations against him. Neither did his online tormentors. It’s just the most recent example of death-by-social-media. Even after he took his own life, many people on Twitter continued the pile on. They continued to smear his name. One less abuser in the world, they celebrated.
It’s something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately. I even proposed starting an online resource that documents and memorializes those who have lost their lives as a result of the twisted social justice doled out online. I tweeted: “Thinking about starting social justice death toll website so people could see the real human cost of mobbing and shaming. I can no longer keep track of the people who have taken their own lives after being publicly shamed.”
The tweet made the rounds and I was taken aback by the variety of responses. Most people wanted me to start the website. I had offers from web developers to design the site, interested parties who want to help fund the initiative, and researchers who have been compiling their own lists.
Some people wanted me to shame the shamers, of course I have no interest in doing anything like that. There’s no point fighting back against an online mob if you delve down to their level.
Some people wanted me to include those who survived their ordeals in order to provide hope to others. After all, for every John Coughlin there is a Justine Sacco. But I would hate the idea of reigniting a hate campaign against someone while trying to celebrate their resilience.
Some people warned against the idea altogether. There is a reason why suicide is generally not reported on as a news story. It was suggested that people are drawn to the idea of being memorialized and it could inadvertently encourage suicide. People are impressionable.
The more I think about it, the fact that people are impressionable is why social media mobs happen in the first place. And I can’t help but wonder if a memorial website dedicated to those who lost their lives in the name of social justice might finally bring the attention needed to end the practice of online mobbing. I envision it as sort of the opposite of a blacklist. A memorial for those who didn’t make it and a resource for those who are currently experiencing ostracization.
Communities memorialize the fallen all of the time. And the global online community that is social media should be made aware of the real human cost of the worst behaviour of its members.
If I do move forward with the initiative, it would require crowdsourcing, fact checking, and a lot of care. It would have to take into account the best interests of the families of the victims. It would also need to provide links and information on how to deal with suicidal and self-injurious thoughts.
I still don’t know how to proceed. I guess that’s why I’m writing this. When I was mobbed, I thought of ending my life. I started to get better when I started to read about the issue. I read Jon Ronson’s book on public shaming; I read journalists like Cathy Young, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Toby Young and I felt less alone.
When I was at my worst, I think I would have liked to discover a website like the one I’m contemplating building, one that pays tribute to the departed and offers hope for those in pain. For now, my DMs are open and I’m reading my emails. If you or someone you love has been affected by an online social justice crusade, please feel free to reach and out tell me your thoughts.