On Sunday, joined by a group of mates, Brisbane university student Wilson Gavin walked into a library and began loudly protesting a drag queen reading programme for children.
The footage from the event showed the protesters chanting "drag queens are not for kids" at the event, organised by Rainbow Families Queensland.
Jess Origliasso, one half of The Veronicas, shared footage of the incident on social media that night, sparking a firestorm of criticism of the actions of the UQ Liberal-National Club.
Gavin, president of the organisation – which was late last year disendorsed by the LNP in Queensland – died by suicide yesterday at 7am, barely 12 hours after the footage emerged.
One of his friends, who spoke to news.com.au on the condition of anonymity out of fear of becoming a target themselves, detailed the backlash the 21-year-old endured.
Gavin was relentlessly trolled with vile insults and taunts, and, the friend claims, received some messages with an encouragement that he die.
Some members of his family, classmates and friends were tracked down and contacted, while his school, The University of Queensland, was publicly encouraged to kick him out.
His social media accounts were trawled through in a bid to find other indiscretions to build a fuller profile of the kind of person he was.
As another friend Drew Pavlou wrote in a public dedication, "away from the social media storms and headlines, he was at his core a very decent and kind person that cared for others".
That didn't seem to matter in the moment.
The Twitter mob responded so quickly and with such intensity that pausing to consider some of those other factors, like his young age or potential frame of mind, didn't happen.
Dangers of mob rule
Public shaming is not a new phenomenon by any stretch, but as Russell Blackford, a writer, philosopher and lecturer at the University of Newcastle explained, civilisations moved away from it "partly in recognition of its cruelty".
The explosion in growth of social media platforms over the past decade has seen its return, but Blackford describes it as a very new form of shaming.
"These types of mobs are just devastating for people and I don't think those who participate in them fully understand just how destructive they can be," Blackford said.
"One of the things that worries me is the sheer glee and cruelty that can be shown by these mobs when they're out to destroy people."
There have been countless examples of Twitter mobs "cancelling" or "deplatforming" those who commit some kind of moral indiscretion.
He examined a number of incidents for his book The Mystery of Moral Authority and said the consequences can be significant.
"With social media, the whole world opens up and you can find yourself piled on by huge numbers of people, often with threats … it's a significant storm.
"It's often massively disproportionate to the original incident.
"Any second chance someone gets comes much, much later. But that aside, there can be a sheer psychological impact that can make any redemption almost beside the point.
"I'm actually surprised more people haven't (died by) suicide over these kinds of things. People have lost their jobs, there have been devastating effects on families, and on and on it goes."
In Gavin's case, his behaviour was clearly upsetting to those in attendance and disrupting a peaceful event in the way he did was worthy of criticism.
"But it's hard," Blackford said.
"In the old days, there might've been a newspaper story locally, a student might've been reprimanded at their university, their organisation might've been disavowed, there might be personal criticism, someone might take them aside.
"There are a range of ways that have always been used to hold people to account. We've now added these extra dimension where some people actually want the total destruction of that person.
"The feeling that this is how you do activism – by destroying someone – doesn't sit well. And it happens on both sides of the political spectrum, it should be said."
In a poignant Twitter thread last night, journalist Jennine Khalik conceded that the tragic turn of events didn't justify or excuse Gavin's actions at the library on Sunday but spoke of her unease at the way he was "held to account".
"We can strongly dislike people's actions but what I've been seeing over the years from online 'cancelling' is that it doesn't allow young people to grow or redeem themselves," Khalik wrote.
"We don't know why he did what he did, but get this: everyone is problematic to a degree and to someone else.
"But we are so harsh on each other. Some of the people closest to me have abhorrent views and we just have to talk it out otherwise we'd cut everyone out."
There's a difference between calling out bad behaviour and piling on someone in a way that isn't sensible, she said, like instances of "doxxing".
Doxxing refers to the widespread sharing of personal and identifying information about someone – their workplace, address, family members and so on – with malicious intent.
"We obviously need to consider positions of power. I don't have the answers. I think a place of understanding should always inform criticism," Khalik said.
Why the mob attacks
While the many examples of pile-ons have been in response to an individual or company's misdeeds, some academics believe the motivation for attacking is sometimes more selfish than the lofty goal of holding people to account.
In an article for Psychology Today last month, Cambridge University PhD student and research scholar Rob Henderson wrote about the motives of "cancel culture".
Henderson cited research that shows respect and admiration from peers is more important to a sense of wellbeing than socio-economic status.
Boosting one's social status is "the most powerful motive underpinning cancel culture," he said, adding: "For social strivers, cancel culture has created new opportunities to move up by taking others down."
On top of that, cancel culture is an easier way of elevating "the status of oneself or one's group" than the alternative – doing something good.
"But doing something good requires effort and the possibility of failure," Henderson wrote. "Fortunately, another option exists: Broadcasting the bad behaviour of others … Indeed, research shows that people engage in moral grandstanding to enhance their social rank."
'Justice' is dealt swiftly
The nature of social media is that things happen quickly – and cancel culture is no different.
In his article, Henderson wrote that it's not just the fast pace of the internet that sees punishments dolled out by the mob with little push-back.
Not only is there limited time to pause and think, but someone stopping to ask valid questions can quickly find themselves turned on, Henderson said.
"Those who ask for evidence of the alleged wrongdoing, or question the severity of the transgression, or debate the propriety of cancel culture, have revealed themselves to be unfaithful to the cause," he wrote.
"Rallying around a morally ambiguous transgression and seeing how people react permits the recruitment of assenters and the targeting of dissenters."
In many instances, it seems you're either with the mob or against it.
This notion was explored in an article for The Conversation, jointly authored by Corinne May-Chahal and Adam Fish, lecturers in social sciences at Lancaster University.
In it, they described the rise of the Twitter mob as "a kind of public flogging for the 21st Century" but said social media hasn't decentralisated communication into a level playing field as once thought.
"Instead it is becoming a tool for the re-establishment and re-enforcing of tribal groupings, and the monopolisation of debate by micro-celebrities who may or may not be deserving of serious attention," May-Chahal and Fish wrote.
In some cases, the punishment decided on by the mob – which can often spiral wildly out of control – far outweighs the initial crime.
"As we put increasing faith in social media to solve social problems … we may want to reflect upon the supposed wisdom of the crowd," they wrote.
When news of Gavin's death broke yesterday, many of those who participated in the baying for his blood deleted their original posts.
There was an outpouring of shock and a tone of regret from many who had just hours earlier been part of the mob.
Yesterday on Twitter, a woman identifying herself as Gavin's aunt, summed up her feelings on the tragedy.
"I stand by everything I said on Twitter in regard to my late nephews (sic) Wilson Gavin's behaviour at the library – it was despicable behaviour however, there is a reason for everyone's behaviour & he was a very tormented soul & I loved him," she wrote.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
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