Will my son be safe from the online mob?

My oldest son has a unique way of saying “hello” to people.  Upon meeting him you may notice him staring at you for a moment, then rocking back and forth a little, gradually getting closer to you.  Once he knows you’re friendly, he may get right in your face, until your noses touch.

Thankfully, people have never been more aware of autism spectrum disorders, and almost everyone my son meets is understanding and kind.  But I do fear that someone may interpret his behavior the wrong way, especially as he gets older.

That’s why this story, from Australia, drew my attention:

Last week a Facebook user posted a photo of a man on a Melbourne tram and detailed her encounter with him as she saw it. The man was accused of being intimidating and threatening towards young women and more specifically young women of Asian decent. He was accused of being a drug user and called predatory. The post attracted in excess of 80,000 likes and was shared more than 10,000 times.  Immediately comments appeared under the post that called for various violent acts to be perpetrated against the man in retaliation. Among the frenzy of people tutting and mindlessly sharing the story was a prominent feminist activist and author, Clementine Ford, someone who does not shy away from publicly revealing the faces and names of alleged perpetrators. Hastags such as #silentnomore and #fightlikeagirl were added to the story and assisted in its circulation. The story was also picked up by the mainstream media and was published by online news outlets. Several hours after the story broke people who knew the man contacted the original poster, privately and publicly, and advised her that the man had Autism and often asks for high-fives on the tram (this has not been verified). It was suggested that he was not a violent person and was well known to at least some tram users. The post was not removed by the poster until she began to receive threats via private message. The threats against the poster were not necessary however it was also not necessary for her to post an identifying image of the man on a public forum with inflammatory remarks attached.


The Daily Mail published a follow up article on the 10th October 2016 which reveals that the man on the tram has Autism. Doing a search of Facebook hash tags for the original posters name reveals a handful of admissions from those who shared the original article expressing regret that they hadn’t looked into it more thoroughly before sharing. What is absent though is commentary from the original poster and high profile sharers like Clementine Ford.

If her twitter account is any indication, Ford is completely unrepentant:

The likes of Ford make me kind of understand how Donald Trump happened.

Many people have been disproportionately punished by online mobs, whether it’s Spike Lee posting address information for the wrong George Zimmerman or a snarky joke ruining Justine Sacco’s life.  That’s bad enough.

But it’s even worse when it happens to someone who is misunderstood and can’t conventionally defend himself.  And in an age where people are intoxicated by hunting down dissenters on the internet, I fear the most vulnerable people are going to be targeted.

As a parent of someone on the autism spectrum, that’s a terrifying thought.

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