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The Ethical Folly of ‘Modern Witch-Burning’

Feb 07, 2020 | 820 videos
Video by Mike Nayna

Editor’s Note: This film contains footage that depicts hate speech. Viewer discretion is advised.

When Mike Nayna boarded a crowded bus in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012, he braced for an uncomfortable commute. It was late, and many of the bus riders were intoxicated. On top of that, people had been waiting for more than an hour for the bus to arrive. Nobody seemed thrilled about the situation—except, maybe, the group of tourists who were singing French songs at the back of the bus. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a disgruntled man took stood up and began verbally attacking the tourists, spewing racist and sexist vitriol. His anger intensified, and the verbal aggression became more explicit. Other passengers began to add to the tirade.

Mike was appalled. He did what many of us would do in a quickly escalating situation: He took out his phone and filmed it.

What happened next is the subject of Nayna’s short documentary Digilante. “I was rewatching this footage and thinking about these guys going off and telling their friends and becoming heroes of this story,” Nayna says in the film. “At that point, I was like, If that’s the narrative you’ve got, my footage shows something else.” Nayna and his friend, the producer Mark Conway, uploaded the video to Facebook. Within a week, it was uploaded to YouTube with 1 million views.

“It was thrilling,” Nayna told me. “Mark and I had set out to make the video viral, so watching it spread beyond what we thought possible felt like discovering a superpower.”

For a while, Nayna rode the wave. On Australian television, he was portrayed as a hero who had exposed an injustice. But as the video racked up millions of additional views around the world, a different, more morally ambiguous narrative began taking shape. He’d created a firestorm of public shaming, fueled by social media.

“Seeing the anger and vitriol it generated at such a large scale made me reassess the dynamics of a media event like that,” Nayna said. “The conversations about racism it generated didn’t seem to be constructive, or even coherent, really.” Initially, Nayna had thought that exposing something ugly about his culture’s prejudices might “somehow spark a net good.” But he wasn’t achieving the results he’d hoped for. At best, sharing Nayna’s video was a shortcut to condemning racism and misogyny; it merely created the illusion of positive change. At worst, it was “a modern form of witch-burning,” with people calling for the vigilante murders of those responsible for the racist attacks.

“We build a digital effigy of a human being and set it alight in some kind of group catharsis,” Nayna said. “It's not something I'll ever take part in again, and I’m fairly confident that if we’re ever able to settle into a mature code of ethics for the internet, we’ll look back at shaming as a primitive phase we went through.”

To this day, Nayna struggles to find the right way to respond to people who regard him as a hero for having created the video. “It was a shitty thing that I did,” he says in the film. “If you look at the outcomes, I was exacting revenge. Do you make someone better by attacking them and making them feel horrible? I don’t think that’s true.”

Eight months following the incident, two perpetrators were charged and sentenced to prison.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.