This week, the Internet was transfixed by the Evil British Cat Bin Woman, Mary Bale, who was caught on tape throwing a neighbor's cat into a trash can. Guess who tracked her down? The web marauders of 4chan's /b/ board.
Earlier this month, a British guy found his family's cat, Lola, in a trash can across the way. The family's CCTV camera captured an anonymous gray-haired lady chucking Lola the previous night like a bag of potato peels. The video was posted to YouTube and went viral, eventually ending up on 4chan's anarchic /b/ board. It was there that 4chan managed to identify the cat tosser "within a few hours" last Saturday night while most non-4chan users were out with their friends or getting laid. The culprit? A 45-year-old woman named Mary Bale of Coventry.
The subsequent assault on Mary Bale resembled /b/'s harassment of 11-year-old viral video star Jessi Slaughter. They found Bale's employer (The Bank of Coventry), the number of her boss, her address and Facebook profile. As with Jessi Slaughter, they sent death threats and other anonymous mischief her way and Bale was eventually forced into hiding.
Except, of course, the moral calculus involved is a bit different here. Can we really feel bad for a woman who would throw away a cat, then say, after she's been busted, "I don't know what the fuss is about. It's just a cat."? Thanks to 4chan, she's being investigated, and has issued an apology:
I cannot explain why I did this, it is completely out of character and I certainly did not intend to cause any distress to Lola or her owners."
In China, they have a name for when anonymous Internet users hunt down suspected wrongdoers: "human flesh search engines" (A famous example involves a Chinese woman who didn't just throw a cat away—she killed one in an erotic "crush" video.) The same sense of Internet mob justice which propels 4chan users to issue death threats against a precocious 11-year-old can sometimes turn the board into a powerful crime-fighting force.
Sounds good! Unless you happen to find yourself at the wrong end of this powerfully networked rage, all whipped into self-righteous frenzy, salivating over scraps of data. You can't have mob justice without a really scary mob.