The lynching of a ‘racist’ is so easy these days

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The Israeli bureaucrat at Israel’s interior ministry who committed suicide over the weekend after being called a racist on a Facebook post which was shared 6 000 times, is a new form of lynching.
by Geoff Sifrin | May 27, 2015


Calling someone a racist is almost as bad as it gets in today’s “politically correct”, super-connected world. Some people now refer to the Internet as the “lynchternet”.

Along with the freedom of expression for which the Internet is rightly celebrated, there has come an insidious disease: the “shaming” phenomenon in which an individual or group is slandered by multiple postings which quickly go viral, with no recourse to defend himself.

The crudeness and injustice of it is no less than what used to happen when the Ku Klux Klan - its members dressed in their trademark garb which shielded their true identity - used to hang a terrified black man from a tree after accusing him of some random evilness.

Shortly before taking his life, Ariel Ronis wrote in a Facebook post that he had been deeply wronged by masses of people who never knew him. The matter arose from an incident where a black Israeli woman felt discriminated against for her treatment in a queue at the office where Ronis worked. She had come to get a passport for her son. Soon afterwards, all hell broke loose.

He wrote: “…I got a phone call from the public complaints division. After a few hours a (Facebook) post appeared as well as an article on (Israeli Facebook group) Mamazone, an interview (on Israeli television Channel 10) and a whole media circus. Not two days later the post had over 6 000 shares, each of them a sharpened arrow in my flesh.

“Me? A racist? All of my work over the course of my entire life was swept away instantly, ended momentarily by someone asked to stand in line like everyone else. The sharers continued to fire their arrows at me, not stopping for a moment to question.”

It is impossible, of course, to ascertain from this circus trial whether Ronis was indeed a racist, or whether there was any justification in his accuser’s anger. What we know is that he was lynched by the chattering of the thousands on social media - which is far too crass an instrument for making a judgement of this sort.

A year and a half ago, a woman called Justine Sacco, the communications executive for American media and Internet company IAC, gained worldwide notoriety after she tweeted: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get Aids. Just kidding. I'm white!", a short while before boarding an 11-hour flight  from London’s Heathrow airport to Cape Town.

While she was in-flight, thousands of people shared her tweet throughout the world, calling her a hateful racist.

By the time she landed in South Africa, she had lost her job at IAC and had become a hated figure on the Internet. It was as if a mob had gathered in the woods to lynch her in the name of some “liberal” and “moral” outlook through which she was declared an enemy, with no chance to defend herself. She was demonised for making a sarcastic remark that the Twitter masses took at face value because she was white.

Sarcasm is saying something so outrageous that it is obviously not meant as true. She should have been more careful in putting something out on social media that required some sophistication to understand properly and could be interpreted in a sinister way. But in this case, she was in reality the victim of racism rather than the racist.

Something has gone wrong in the noble fight against racism and other social ills. It has become too easy- even fashionable - today to call out the mobs. All it needs is the click of the “send” button.

Twitter and Facebook have brought a whole new world of positive means for expression. And indeed, many genuine racists and other abusers have been exposed in this way. But the lynching of Ariel Ronis illustrates that unbridled freedom of expression can be sometimes as much a curse as no freedom of expression.


Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.


1 Comment

  1. 1 nat cheiman 27 May
    I sympathise with those that are called a racist on facebook or in the media.
    However, if one is prepared to tweet or write comments on facebook, that person should be prepared to face criticism. To be a racist, you have to be hardened.
    Otherwise tweet about butterflies and sex and don't be controversial. 


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