Seen something you don’t like the look of? A possible crime in the making? No problem, no need to call the police. Just pop a picture of the purported criminal on the internet and allow the crazy little children jangling the keys of the virtual kingdom to do their worst.
For vigilantism is the latest horrifying trend to rock the internet.
I spotted a picture on my Facebook news feed last week which showed a man getting into his car. Both the number plate and his face were clearly visible.
The blurb which accompanied it claimed that someone had passed this guy – apparently a farmer – and spotted a dog in his back seat that may have been in danger.
The poster wrote: “Please everyone share this post so I can find this farmer today walking to Llandudno I passed this van and inside was a dog with his or her mouth taped up with heavy duty tape please help me name him for the dogs sake.”
Everyone shared it. Well, some people did, anyway. Including one of my friends. A nice, sane, normal person. It has actually become normal for people to ask the general public to join them to become vigilantes.
Bad grammar aside, this poster had no idea what he or she was doing. Or perhaps they did. Perhaps they like inciting abuse against people who have not actually been proven guilty of doing anything wrong.
In the end, it turned out that the farmer had taped together his dog’s muzzle – an object made of cloth – after it had fallen apart. The tape was not actually on the dog’s mouth.
Perhaps he hadn’t yet got around to buying a new muzzle after it broke, perhaps the animal found this one more comfortable. But, whatever the reason, the police issued a statement explaining that they had investigated and were perfectly “happy” that the dog was in good health and being well cared for.
This was all clarified in a local newspaper story after police officers banged on this chap’s door and demanded an explanation. He probably felt embarrassed by this. Victimised. Indeed, he will be lucky if this is the last he hears of this debacle. More likely he will be bombarded with abuse from animals rights campaigners who are still circulating the picture – perhaps not avid readers of the Western Mail, which broke the good news, and therefore unaware that the matter had been resolved.
All of this, when all he had been doing was going about his daily business with his dog.
An even more terrifying example did the rounds a few weeks ago. It originated in my hometown, a fairly small place in the north east of England.
Someone I went to school with shared a picture on her Facebook feed of a man who, the original poster claimed, had been hanging around the local park, watching children all day. The connection of my schoolmate posted the picture, she claimed, to warn other local parents and to attempt to identify this person.
I was horrified.
True, the chap was wearing a hoodie and had stubble: that is proof enough, is it not, that he was up to no good? Clearly a major criminal, according to the internet, at least.
Otherwise, all he was doing was sitting in a public place, on his own.
What these people who shared this photograph seem absolutely incapable of understanding is that they are committing libel – on a huge scale.
This man, like the chap with the taped-up dog, may have a perfectly rational explanation for his apparent misdemeanour, which in this case was nothing more than hanging around the park all day.
He may have had a row with his wife and wanted to get out of the house for a few hours. He could have been homeless and had nowhere else to go.
He may have been doing some psychological academic research on mad mothers who think that every person who dares to come near a public place is out to kidnap their little darlings.
Or maybe, just maybe, he was up to no good. But that is not for the internet to decide. It is a matter for the authorities, if the threat was really believed to be that serious.
If this man had been a husband or partner – or brother – of one of the people who posted this picture, how would they feel if, partaking in a perfectly innocent occupation, his picture had been emblazoned across the internet, insinuating a dark intention?
Assuming that this bloke is entirely innocent (and I cannot find anything in local media to the contrary), it is possible that their actions could have left his reputation seriously scarred.
He may find himself forced to move house, or explain himself to his boss who has, shocked, spotted his staff member’s image alongside accusations.
After all, this picture was circulated mainly within a fairly small, close knit community. It cannot have taken long for someone to identify him and add his name to the bottom of this hate-filled litany of comments.
In both of these cases, if the people who took these pictures were seriously worried, they should have phoned the police. Or, in the case of the man with the dog, animal welfare officers.
The dog complainer, in fact, did. The police responded appropriately and, armed with information such as this chap’s number plate, quickly and easily tracked down the man involved and got to the bottom of the situation.
Why this person felt, then, that it was necessary to take the law into his or her own hands while waiting for the outcome of the police investigation is beyond me.
The answer lies in the usual pitfall of the internet: self importance.
Yet this isn’t just plain old irritating self-important nonsense, which makes people hide you from their newsfeed because you’ve posted too many pictures of what you had for dinner.
No, this is serious stuff, with people’s personal reputations – and even personal safety – on the line.
Just stop the vigilantism, social media. Please.