In Search and Destroy Engines, h+ magazine discusses the phenomenon of internet lynch mobs. Starting off with a cat-torture story and the perpetrator's come-uppance, it presents lynch mobs as an exciting and just emergent property of the web.
Wang Jue was going through a difficult time in her life, feeling distraught and powerless. She connected with cameraman Li Yuejun and together they committed an extremely sadistic act, unforgivable and senselessly violent. William Gibson says the "The street has its own use for things." The Internet decided that Yuejun and Jue would pay.
Shortly after the video was uploaded, enraged masses mobilized online to find her. Traditional media was then alerted and joined in the hunt. Less than a week later, volunteer cyber sleuths were able to discover her location by analyzing the background of the video. Then they matched the shoes worn in the video to an online purchase. With this information they uncovered her identity and address. These details were posted online and she was attacked with thousands of phone calls and threats. She was mercilessly shamed, lost her job, and was forced to post a video apology online where she acknowledged her actions and asked for forgiveness.
In Reports of my death, Wired looks at a few of the stranger cases where an internet denizen has gotten hirself into some sort of a corner where the only way out is to fake hir death. This seems to be done to evoke sympathy and can be done slowly in posts of increasing medical complexity, in which the poster apparently develops a wasting disease and fades away to the sad goodbyes of hir online friends. (Incidentally, I loved the line "She introduced numerous other similarly-afflicted characters, known by medical professionals as "sock-puppets" - it's not actually a medical term, but an internet term, one I'm quite familiar with.) Apparently, tired of being fooled by these Lord Lucans of the Interwebs, groups have formed to investigate 'deaths' and determine if they are genuine.
In many of the cases, it seems that once the lynch mob (see above) has outed the faker, the faker feels the need to come back to the internet and explain why they did it. That's the most puzzling part to me - if I ever felt the need to kill my online self I can't imagine doing the "Hah! Only fooling!" part. How hard can it be to stay away from the old haunts? Judging by the article, the answer is very hard indeed.
A LiveJournal community, known as fake_lj_deaths, has more than 6,000 members committed to investigating suspicious "deaths" reported on the social networking site. The sleuths are motivated by a desire to spare credulous readers the all-too-real grief and bereavement over the imaginary passing of a sometimes-imaginary friend. "I would venture only one in ten deaths that we are asked about turns out not to be fake," said Anne Soffee, the moderator of fake_lj_deaths, the community that has investigated, and exposed, hundreds of such frauds.
The h+ article is the real toughie. It's hard to care what happens to cat torturers - two examples in the article - and only a little easier to care what might befall an adulterer whose wife committed suicide while he was with his mistress (another example). The internet lynch mobs found them all very quickly and made their lives hell.
But there's a word missing from the paragraph above, and it's "allegedly". Alleged cat torturers, in a civilized society, should be subject to due process, not a program of calls to their employers and friends. But the internet, home of the flash mob, doesn't wait for evidence, and the style of communication - the length of a tweet or a few words in IM - does not allow for evidence, or even reflection and equivocation. If someone is 'seen' torturing a cat on a YouTube video, they are presumed guilty - and of course I have to point out that Stephen Spielberg really had dinosaurs acting in Jurassic Park.
To make matters worse, as one of the commenters points out, the internet is non-local, so people with a cultural or personal tendency to lynch others can easily 'meet' like people and form the mob. The critical mass needed to find and hang someone in the past may have been difficult to drum up, but is easily gathered in cyberspace. And once riled, there may be no easy way to calm that mob down.