One man’s protest is another’s cyber-bullying.

Social media has been making news for some time now. But increasingly of late, social media has been used to shape the news. President Obama used social media successfully in his last campaign. Social media was one of the primary weapons of choice in the successful fight against SOPA. The Susan Komen Foundation also found just how powerful it can be to rally protest.

But consider the recent story of a Washington D.C. reporter who did investigative work on underage drinking and identified a specific liquor store that was the prominent source for minors to purchase alcohol. As a result of her reporting the store was closed down.

Then came the protest:

Based on the deluge of tweets, emails, and Facebook messages and the retaliatory bullying her own underage kids were subject to, McCarren announced on her Facebook wall that she was taking herself off the beverage beat and handing the reins over to a colleague.

So a reporter that is doing her job and trying to save the lives of teenagers in her area gets harassed incessently by those same teenagers to the point that she has to change jobs, and there isn’t anything she can do about it. At what point does protest become cyber-bullying? At what point does freedom of speech become intimidation?

Make no mistake, this is the dark side of social media, and I only see it getting worse. While it’s arguable that this is no worse than picketing someone’s home, there is a significant difference. To picket someone’s home you have to actually go to someone’s home, meaning you can’t be somewhere else. There is a personal price to be paid for such protests. Miss enough work, for example, you could lose your job. It could get uncomfortable if you stay through the night. Eventually you have to weight the cost against the benefits.

Not so with social media protests. You can organize and execute harassment attacks with little personal cost. You can do it comfortably from your own home, and even while at work. It can even be automated to the point that it costs you practically nothing to make another person’s life miserable.

Given that capability, it’s going to be abused. It’s the infamous “death by a thousand cuts”, and it’s a terrible power to put into the hands of a society with rapidly diminishing self-restraint. These days anything that can be done, will be done, and usually for no more justification than that. With great power comes great abuse of power.

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