I do not believe anyone, even if they are guilty of a minor crime, should be stalked and harassed. And, of course, a web site detailing someone's supposed "crimes" is hardly proof of their guilt. In the United States, we claim to believe a person is "innocent until proven guilty". The fact a web site posts replies implying someone's guilt is not proof of anything. The site's readers have no way of knowing if the "replies" are genuine or fabricated.
Even if every claim made on the "Stolen Sidekick" site is later proven in a court of law, no one could be sure of that at the time they eagerly weighed in to help put pressure on the girl who was accused. In spite of all the self-congratulatory postings on the Internet because it "worked", all this story was really about was a high-tech adaptation of the lynch mobs we claim to be so ashamed of in our history.
But the implications of the story are much wider than that. This episode showed the Internet could easily become a tool to destroy a person's life. Such destruction could be brought about deliberately or accidentally; intent might matter in a libel suit, but it surely doesn't matter to the victim. What does matter is the public's willingness to leap aboard whatever happens to be the popular bandwagon, and lend their weight to the 'cause'.
The victim in this case was a poor girl with little education, so she and her family had no hope of fighting back, but what if you found yourself in her position? Think back to the most irrational, unjust accusation that was ever made against you, and imagine your accuser posting those claims on their web site. Now, imagine that, for whatever reason, the public accepts those claims and it becomes popular to hate you for what you "did".
Even if you are much better educated, and have more money and resources to draw on, do you really believe you'd have a chance of fighting back? If you really are educated enough to understand the hazards of a smear campaign backed by public support, you know very well every attempt you made to defend yourself would be distorted by your detractors until it became ammunition against you.
Those who would defend the practice will claim some people deserve such a fate. While that may be true, keeping a lost cell phone that is technically stolen property is hardly a crime deserving of such a harsh punishment. Neither is leaving dog poop on a subway car, as one of the hapless victims in the news story I linked to above may have done. These are minor infractions; they resonated with the public because they are common annoyances, not because they are heinous crimes.
The other problem is that not everyone targeted in such a manner will be guilty of anything. Do we really want to go around fearing what an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, a former employee or underling, a crank neighbour, or anyone else who feels they have a grudge against us, might decide to say about us publicly? Of course we don't. Which does not mean the answer is censorship. Instead, we need to understand, as a culture, that leaping to attack someone simply because something negative was said about them on the Internet shows you're a bit unbalanced.
Originally, I had intended to say no more about this story. I had a few concerns about it, and the things it revealed about our society, but I discussed those. It didn't seem worth elaborating on the points I had made. However, the article I linked to above suggests the danger is real, and may be even worse than I suspected. Keep in mind that the full effects of any new trend can take quite a while to become apparent.
My other concern was the fact no one had even noticed there was a possible ulterior motive behind the "Stolen Sidekick" story, a motive displayed right on the official site when I first read it. The site was later edited, and that motive played down in the revision, something that did nothing to ease my concerns.
However, there is no way of knowing the real motive, and the fact I spotted a possible one is of note primarily because it highlights the lack of critical thinking among so many journalists. That aspect of the story worries me much less than what it reveals about the possibility the reporters and writers we rely on for information may have no idea how to do their jobs.
What does it matter how many journalists, reporters, or bloggers there are offering facts and opinions, so long as all or nearly all of those who offer them are not capable of thinking critically? Such "journalists" are not to be trusted; they are too easily led astray. Free speech is essential; there can be no doubt of that. What I doubt is that free speech is the only essential.
Accurate information will be vulnerable to suppression by other means than censorship so long as those who disseminate that information are capable of being distracted by cheap publicity stunts or popular opinions. Limiting information in this way is much less visible and obvious than outright censorship. Yet, whether the limitation was intentional or self-inflicted, every one of the many journalists who covered this story seems to have remained silent on the possibility of an alternate explanation which fits the known facts. That ought to keep anyone who believes in the ideal of an informed society awake at night.