On September 20th, four Dutch children, ages four to eight, were killed when a passenger train struck their electric cargo bike at a railroad crossing in the town of Oss. Two of the four dead were sisters, a third sister was badly hurt.
The Dutch public reacted with shock and sorrow. People traveled from all over the country to lay flowers and stuffed animals at the site. The Dutch King and Queen sent their condolences. The Dutch people have already given more than 250,000 dollars to a fund to help the families of the victims.
While Oss put the Dutch capacity for organized mercy on display, it also provoked their irreverent side. In the days after September 20th, jokes about the accident began appearing on social media. One of the milder ones was a Facebook post showing a picture of the same model of the electric cargo bike and the words: “Nearly new electric cargo bike for sale. You just need to check the brakes.” A dozen other tasteless pieces of humor showed up on Facebook.
The reaction to these jokes, however, was anything but funny. Dutch World Champion Kick Boxer Nieky Holtzken sent the identities of the joksters to his 140,00 Instagram followers. Furious Dutch Facebook users followed up by publishing the names, photos, addresses, and employers of the offenders. After an elementary school teacher in The Hague made a tasteless complaint about the traffic delays caused by the Oss accident, Facebook users called her employer. She was fired. A steel company in Eindhoven has come under the same kind of pressure to fire an employee who also made grotesque jokes about Oss. The owner of the company told Dutch media that the young man in question was very stupid and deeply regrets what he did. “But I am afraid I am going to lose clients over this.” The Dutch police in Eindhoven have gone so far as to call on the public not to engage in any vigilante justice.
In an analysis for NOS Dutch Radio, Philosopher Hans Schnitzler notes that the people making the grotesque jokes are a part of our “display window” society. Everything should look good and people should see it. According to Schnitzler, the display window is part of the “attention economy” whose currency is likes and shares. If you want to get more likes and shares, putting up grotesque jokes about the dead children at Oss is one way to get them.
Dutch media have repeatedly used the term “witch hunt.” Schnitzler says that “hunt” is an appropriate term. He contends that this violent digital reaction is the modern continuation of the hunting group. It strengthens the sense of tribalism, of belonging. According to Schnitzler, people wrestle with identity, so what can be more fun than to join a tribe, make a lot of noise and start the hunt? You know why you are angry and what you are hunting. You are joining a tribe of like-minded people. Schnitzler says that this appeals to a primitive instinct of the need to belong and the need for attention.
Americans also struggle with a sense of belonging. In the US it is just as easy to join an online tribe and go off on the hunt. It feels good and fulfills a need to vent some anger.
But the question needs to be asked: How does this activism online do anything to help find an identity?
Twenty years ago, tasteless jokes about a fatal accident would probably have been made around the water cooler at work. The “joke” remained limited to a small group of people who were personal contacts, and as such, rebuke and repercussions were confined to those present. The “offender” would have had the opportunity to apologize and mend his ways, not face an avalanche of personal attacks, public humiliation, and the loss of a job.
I can only guess how much time, energy, and money the online “hunters” put into their efforts to identify and publicly shame “offenders.” The question may seem obvious, but I will pose it anyway: Wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent in making personal contacts and building relationships?