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When the anti-bullies become the bullies

We live in a complicated, often bizarre, world. As a newspaper editor, I sometimes get an unwanted front-row seat to tragedy as it unfolds. Last week I watched as the heart-breaking tale of Amanda Todd unfolded.

We live in a complicated, often bizarre, world.

As a newspaper editor, I sometimes get an unwanted front-row seat to tragedy as it unfolds.

Last week I watched as the heart-breaking tale of Amanda Todd unfolded. First it appeared to be a case of a young person succumbing to peer-group bullying. Then it appeared that Amanda took her own life after falling prey to an organized online older sexual predator.

By the end of this week, it was alleged that more individuals may have been involved. By tomorrow I suspect there'll be new information or misinformation fighting for our attention.

When I started in the news business, news cycles were pretty much daily. But fast forward a couple of decades later and there really is no such thing as a news cycle. It's more like a constantly swirling river racing by. In that torrent of information there is also opinion, speculation, outright lies, and a lot of people screaming "help me," or just plain "watch me."

The river has expanded to include social media - a veritable flash flood of all of the above. I've come to accept this new world - in fact, there are days when I, like those folks sweeping by me in the river, feel part of an exciting whitewater journey. But sometimes it just feels like we're all in one big sewer pipe.

I was truly shaken by what I witnessed this week when an online group 'outed' someone they thought was implicated in the Amanda Todd situation.

I watched as 'Anonymous' - an online hacker group known for tracing and revealing private data - named an individual as Todd's persecutor and gave his supposed location in New Westminster. In minutes there was a virtual 'pile on' with a potential threat to find the guy and do him bodily harm.

Few folks on Twitter or Facebook questioned the information on the individual, and fewer still seemed to pause for a moment and think it might be unwise to spread the information. I watched as the online mob grew. And more people tweeted the information, and still others shared it via Facebook.

As it turned out the individual did not live at the address that was spread globally online within minutes - impossible to retrieve. When our reporter checked with the local police, they had determined that a family lived at that address, who had no knowledge of the alleged tormentor.

When the young man was tracked down in another city, his mother was understandably frightened for his safety and her family's safety. She said his siblings are now being tormented at school.

Why did people assume that the information provided by an anonymous hackers' group was infallible? Why did everyone assume that the young man named was, indeed, the person who was taunting Amanda online? Given the possibility of identification theft, and folks just using other people's names to hide behind, it was reckless to assume his identity was factual, or that he was guilty.

I don't know if the young man who was subjected to the online lynch mob helped push Amanda into a desperate and tragic act. But, what I do know for sure is that there is something ugly and deeply troubling when people of usually sound mind jump on the 'get 'em' bandwagon so easily.

Is it just easier to hit a button on a computer keyboard? Would these same people chase a guy down a street if someone told them to do it? Does it seem 'unreal' on a computer screen - so unreal that it won't have a real physical or emotional impact on another human being?

Isn't this what Amanda's bullies thought?

Is it OK to bully the bullies? And then where does it stop?

Surely we are no better than the bullies for egging on any kind of behaviour that denies someone the right to explain themselves and be subject to a proper investigation.

Social media and the online world is an amazing virtual universe. People can connect and do incredible good works.

The ability to share thoughts, insights, hopes and successes with people around the globe almost instantaneously is mind-boggling. But sometimes it reveals just how out-of-touch we are with our emotional triggers. Triggers that, apparently, don't require much to unleash.

Pat Tracy is the editor of The Record. Follow her at