May 6, 2020

During times of crisis, we need heroes and villains. We separate the good guys from the bad ones to make sense of a complex reality and to redirect our emotions about the capriciousness of a deadly virus. It is a human reflex, but one that often focuses on punishment and reward at the expense of justice. This process is often more pronounced in digital realms.

The obvious heroes of this crisis are the health care providers, but also the people who are currently making sure that people like me can stay at home with stocked fridges, reams of toilet paper, and uninterrupted package and mail delivery. Many of these essential workers work for tech companies that allow us to get goods delivered to our doorsteps without taking the risk of exposing ourselves to a potentially deadly virus.

Companies such as Amazon, DoorDash or Grubhub have benefited from this crisis. Their employees and suppliers have not. Restaurants in Chicago even asked their customers to forego food delivery apps and order directly from them. The poor treatment of low-level employees in tech companies and their questionable corporate ethics is well-documented and stems from long before this crisis. They got away with it because we, the consumers, cared more about price and convenience than ethics. If we really want to pay tribute to the people who kept the nation afloat while we were hunkering down in the safety of our homes, we will demand more from these companies -and how they treat their employees- in the future.

While some people displayed admirable courage and self-sacrifice, sad examples of selfish and anti-social behavior have also been on display: People hoarding sanitizers and toilet paper, defying stay-at-home orders or simply ignoring social distancing requirements.

According to psychology professor Dylan Selterman, defeating Covid-19 will require that we come to terms with the Tragedy of the Commons, i.e. an economic problem in which individuals’ self-interests cause them to behave in ways that run contrary to the common good. Mostly, this occurs when there is a shared but limited resource, such as toilet paper. The responsible action would be for consumers to buy a reasonable supply of toilet paper so they can get through the next week or so. If everyone did this, we all would be able to buy toilet paper. But if some people, fearing future shortages, start hording toilet paper (or hand sanitizer, meat,…), there will not be enough for others. In this scenario, the people who do the right thing by buying only the toilet paper they need will be punished for acting responsibly. They will find themselves marooned on their toilets while their hording neighbors have basements full of the coveted paper.

To a certain extent, a similar mechanism is at play with the social distancing and stay-at-home orders. These rules are not merely designed to protect ourselves, their main goal is to slow down the spread of the virus so that our hospitals do not get overwhelmed, and to protect vulnerable populations from infections we may not even realize we have. People who ignore them because they do not want to give up partying with friends might justify it by saying that they are free to take the risks they want and that a limited gathering won’t make much of a difference. But that is only the case because they take advantage of the fact that the rest of us are doing the responsible thing. If we all acted like this, the worst-case scenarios could become reality.

Societies have traditionally dealt with those who flout societal norms in the furtherance of their own individual goals (especially if law enforcement is lacking) by various types of vigilante justice. In the digital environment this has taken the form of doxing or other forms of naming and shaming. We have devoted a number of essays on this site to the ethics of this phenomenon. My personal opinion is that online naming and shaming is rarely ethical. They tend to be driven by revenge rather than justice, are rarely effective nor proportional, and I tend to distrust end-justifies-the-mean rationales. Cultivation of virtuous behavior can better be achieved through means that do not infringe upon human dignity.

But if one were to write a hypothetical ethical dilemma, it would be a challenge to come up with one that would serve as a better justification for online shaming than one in which people engage in behavior that reduces the effectiveness of our collective efforts to keep our health workers and vulnerable populations safe. Law enforcement is poorly equipped to enforce these types of social norms, so an argument could be made that it is up to the fellow citizens of these norm violators to set them straight. We have seen some examples of this occurring already. In  New Jersey, the state names violators of these orders.  On Twitter #covidiot has been used to call out people displaying poor social distancing practices. If social distancing and stay-at-home orders remain in place and public support for (and compliance with) them begins to lessen, or gets split along political lines, online vigilantes might become even more prevalent, and so will the debate about the ethics of their practices.

The outrage against norm violations in general, and against “Covidiots” in particular, can be explained because it goes against the value of fairness, according to cultural psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, one of the foundations of our moral systems. People tend to be sensitive to violations of what they perceive to be fair. Studies among young children, for example, have shown that they prefer a situation in which no one gets a treat over a situation in which they receive a treat but others get more.

When I go on a run through my neighborhood and I see neighbors hanging out in their driveway while their children are playing together, it irks me. Not because they are endangering each other and others (ok, that too), but mainly because I am following the rules and am miserable in the process, while they are enjoying themselves.

This righteous indignation and feeling of injustice are morally defensible, but this feeling of being wronged should not be the driver of my actions as it might lead to a disproportionate reaction. When I look at some of the instances in which covidiots are being outed, I have the impression that they are fueled by this sense of unfairness, rather than by public health concerns.

Just like we should not heap praise upon essential workers without taking actions that actually improve their working conditions, we should not vilify covidiots for the sake of vilifying. Because ultimately vigilante justice operates through fear. By shaming someone online, we hope that others will think twice before engaging in similar behavior. Even if this deterrence would in fact take place, fear of personal humiliation will not lead to an internalizing of the norm. At best, people will be more careful in their skirting of the rules.

Bastiaan Vanacker's 
work focuses on media ethics and law and international communication. He has been published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. He is the author of Global Medium, Local Laws: Regulating Cross-border Cyberhate and the editor of Ethics for a Digital Age.