Dull: Ockham's Razor in the age of Twitter

The raging villagers of the twitterverse were busy in April. The cruelest month gave witness to #savejon and #amazonfail, campaigns against corporate bullying and intolerance, respectively.  However, both movements likely put the black hat on the wrong party.  These cybermaulings should frighten us all and spur us to let a little Ockham into our hearts.

The #savejon folks were trying to raise awareness about the legal difficulties of Jon Engle, a graphic designer. Jon claimed that plagiarists had snatched his work from his Logopond showcase and uploaded them to StockArt.com. The evil company then billed Jon for $18k for the use of his own images.  The story flashed across Twitter and in mere moments the champions of the oppressed were lending moral and financial support, organizing boycotts and sending the occasional death-threat.

Jon’s story had all the favorites: an innocent artist, marauding thieves, and a brutish corporate entity. Problem is that Jon’s story didn’t make much sense.  The copyright dates of several pieces didn’t match Jon’s version of events. It didn’t help matters that Jon effectively disappeared once individuals began asking harder questions . It now seems clear that Jon stole the logos from StockArt.

Just a few days after the #savejon debacle, Twitter birthed #amazonfail, a movement to address “the greatest insult to consumers and the most severe commercial threat to free expression… in some time.”  On April 10th, several gay romance books disappeared from the sales rankings of Amazon.com. Mark R. Probst blogged that his book “The Filly” and “HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings.”

The twitterverse picked up Probst’s story and the protests began.  Users assumed that Amazon was engaging in covert discrimination and called for boycotts. One blogger went so far as to link  the delisting with an anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Vermont and Iowa. #Amazonfail became the top trend on Twitter, surpassing tweets with the words Easter or Jesus.

However, it seems unlikely that Amazon, a company headquartered in Seattle, was attempting to take up the mantle of traditionalist oppressor. Instead, the company blamed the snafu on a technical glitch.  Other more colorful excuses: a French employee simply mistranslated a field; a troll hacked the complaint system to cause epic lulz. Again, the twitterverse woke with a vengence hangover and wondered what went wrong.

In the wake of #savejon and #amazonfail, commentators asked what could be done to prevent these cyber-lynchings, µjihad, zerg-rushes, etc. Some blogs argued for a more neutral stance and waiting till all the facts were in. But that hardly seems realistic: a key appeal of Twitter is its immediacy. The abbreviated nature of tweets seems to create an intoxicating credulity; 140 characters does not afford a balanced exploration of the issue at hand. Besides, it's fun to mob it up.

So if we can’t prevent mobs, how do we breed a kindler, gentler mass?  Here is my modest proposal: let’s just retreat to Ockham. When all other things are equal, go with the explanation/conspiracy with the fewest steps. The kid with his hand in the cookie jar is a thief; he is not returning cookies that some other child stole. The delisting of GLBT titles is due to a technical error (or a well-executed prank), not a company-wide decision to drive off its own customers. We aren't able to curb our bloodlust, and sure an innocent will get ruined now and then, so if we must google bomb, let us do so intelligently. Let's become a thousand points of light, terrorizing those that are at least logically culpable. 

(Andrew Moshirnia is a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP legal intern.)

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