The Problem With Online Call-Out Culture

by Eliza Castile

Since the rise of the internet, each news cycle seems to follow the same pattern: An ordinary person missteps or speaks out of turn, the online community catches wind of the story, and suddenly someone finds themselves the focus of the collective outrage of thousands of strangers. The recent New York Times documentary The Outrage Machine explores this call-out culture, tracing its development from the trash television shows of the early '90s up to today, when the anonymity of the internet allows users to voice outrage to the point of harassment, with virtually no repercussions.

Produced by Retro Report for the Times, the short documentary focuses largely on one of the most controversial news stories of 2015: Jennifer Connell, whom social media users dubbed the "worst aunt ever" after she named a child as the defendant in a medical insurance lawsuit. In 2011, Connell was reportedly at her cousin's son's birthday party when he allegedly gave her a particularly strong hug that caused her to break her wrist. She says that after her cousin's homeowners insurance refused to pay her medical bills, she was advised to name her relative as the defendant in a lawsuit. According to the documentary, it was essentially a legal formality, and she never filed a claim for her cousin's son's personal assets. However, these nuances were lost in the sensational media coverage after the case went to trial.

As the story was picked up on talk shows and national news outlets, the public response was swift and severe. Hashtags like #WorstAuntEver and the #AuntFromHell trended on Twitter, and Connell unexpectedly became the target for the vitriolic hatred so easily found online. She was insulted, wished bodily harm, and even received death threats from strangers on the other side of computer screens all across the country.

"All of a sudden, I got a text message from one of my friends that said, 'Lock down all of your social media,'" Connell describes in the documentary, adding that additional security measures had to be taken for her own protection during the trial. Like many who unexpectedly go viral, she appears to have been bewildered by her sudden infamy. "[The reaction] just kept growing," she says.

By the time she went on the Today show to explain matters, her role as the villainous, arrogant New Yorker was already set in stone. Despite the young defendant himself defending Connell on the show, she was unable to sway public opinion in her favor.

Although the news cycle moved on since then, Connell says her life has been irrevocably altered. Even months after the lawsuit, she says her time in the internet spotlight has deeply affected her career, and she has changed her appearance in an effort to avoid being recognized. Today, if you search her name or the phrase "worst aunt ever," page after page of media coverage of the lawsuit come up.

Unfortunately, that's the nature of the internet; information has become incredibly easy to share, and almost impossible to remove. In many respects, this is an advantage, but The Outrage Machine makes it clear that it has consequences — not just for those at the center of attention, but perhaps for everyone whose empathy is lost in the process.

Images: Retro Report/New York Times (2)