A Patriots fan's tweet Sunday night — intended for Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith — has ignited a firestorm on the web, raising new questions about the way online discourse intersects with real life.
"Hey, Smith, how about you call your bro and tell him all about your wi--- ohhhh. Wait. #TooSoon?" wrote Baltimore resident Katie Moody, posting as @katiebrady12, as Smith caught two touchdowns in the Ravens' 31-30 win over the Patriots. The game and the Tweet came less than 24 hours after Smith's younger brother Tevin Jones was killed in a motorcycle accident.
The comment immediately elicited angry reaction from Ravens fans and others online. But many went further, calling her vulgar expletives and wishing harm — even rape — upon her. Several commenters posted contact information for Moody's superior at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she works as a senior administrative coordinator.
The reaction raises issues of free speech and bears out what one expert calls "a pack mentality" in social media.
"There are no standards for social acceptability for social media," said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member for ethics at Poynter Institute of Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's not unusual at all for people in a virtual environment to form in to some type of group. ... They definitely act with a pack mentality."
Since the initial post, Moody switched her Twitter account to private and declined, through her employer, to comment for this article.
Ben Hebert, a 23-year-old University of Baltimore graduate, posted about the controversy on his website, benhebert.com. Traffic rocketed from an average of 300 pageviews a day to more than 15,000 by noon Monday, crashing his site.
"There were a ton of really terrible [comments] put up. I don't support that," said Hebert, who estimates that he took down 20 responses. "They were more of things about her character — cursing, derogatory female terms."
Numerous web users fired complaints at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, whose spokesman on Tuesday confirmed Moody's identity and employment there.
One employee has received 174 emails since the initial tweet, spokeman Dennis O'Shea said. Asked whether anyone would face disciplinary action, he responded: "I don't think we really have anything to say on this subject."
The initial tweet and another — "The pats may have lost but at least none of them lost a family member. I'd say that's a win" — caught attention from national media. Much of the commentary online was angry but mostly fell within the bounds of reasonable discourse.
"smh [Shakes my head] u are terrible," Ravens running back Ray Rice tweeted. "I hope you know the word karma."
Elsewhere, responses went downhill.
"She may deserve to get fired, and death threats are more understandable than what she did," said one commenter. "She should just move the f--- away from Baltimore before she gets randomly punched in the face."
WNST 1570-AM radio personality Glenn M. Clark, who is no stranger to freedom-of-speech issues, condemned Moody's tweets. In March 2011, Clark, a co-host and the station's manager were named in an $800,000 defamation suit by sports reporter Jennifer Royle that was ultimately dropped.
"In the case of this Tweet, I'm reminded of just how fortunate we are to have the right to freedom of speech, but just how unfortunate it is that some people choose to exercise it at all times," Clark emailed The Sun. "This particular comment ... would be at best in the category of poor taste and more likely in the category of astonishing stupidity."
Moody did, in fact, apologize to followers before and after setting her Twitter account to private:
"I apologized and meant it...I just can't control if people think I'm really sorry," she Tweeted. "I'm currently getting death threats and people posting my home address."
Smith has not publicly acknowledged the Tweet and has requested privacy in the wake of his brother's death.
Discussing the response, Poynter's McBride said, "It's pretty clear that when someone says, 'We should kill this person; someone should rape this person,' it is clear that there is a type of sarcasm that is only understood by the Internet crowd."
Katie Moody's Twitter page after she privatized her account is filled with apologies and commentary.
•"In the heat of me being upset about NE, I made a horrible joke about Smith's bro and became the most hated person on the web."
•"I apologized and meant it...I just can't control if people think I'm really sorry."
•"Well, I'm currently getting death threats and people posting my home address."
•"I feel like Cady from 'Mean Girls' when she walks into the gymnasium and she knows everyone there is staring and hates her."
•"Cyber Bullying is a new hobby, I guess. :)"