There can, in fact, be a corrective mechanism when it comes to the mob mentality of the Internet.
This week, a video was posted online of a seemingly lost and disoriented man being swarmed by a group of young people, then sucker punched, robbed, and stripped naked of his clothing on a downtown Baltimore street. It's not clear where the video was first posted, but it made it to the now typical stops for such shock clips: Worldstarhiphop, LiveLeak, YouTube, Twitter.
What could have been just another tantalizing video turned into something else: outraged viewers say they have tracked down the identity of the man who threw the first punch, and police have connected a victim - who had reported an assault and theft to police but couldn't remember where it occurred - to the incident. Police say an investigation is moving forward.
"You'd be surprised about how really stupid people are in giving out information about crimes," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakesaid earlier this month to WMAR-TV, speaking on an unrelated incident. "If they're going to be stupid then we have to get smart and use it to our advantage."
Anthony Mandich, a 40-year-old from Orange County, Calif. who blogged about the clip and published what he purports to be the suspect's information, said the video "got my blood boiling."
"The images of [him] mugging for the camera before the humiliation began and then creeping up and [to] start digging through the guys pockets like it was a big joke - I really hated that," Mandich said in an interview.
Despite the swarm of information, The Sun is not naming the suspect because he has not been charged and could not be reached for comment.
The victim, according to police spokesman Donny Moses, is from Arlington, Va. and told police on March 19 he was partying at a downtown club the night before and woke up in his hotel room with a black eye, scrapes and bruises all over his body, and missing a Tag Heuer watch, an iPhone, and the keys to his Audi. But he couldn't remember what happened or where. With the attention the video received, police have now connected the dots, Moses said.
Even by Internet standards, where the craziest videos get the most views, the video is shocking in the complete humiliation of the victim by laughing assailants, none of whom appear to display any regret or concern for a stranger.
But something happened when the video hit Twitter: Most people weren't impressed. A Twitter user's handle became associated with the video, and strangers and even friends started taking him to task. "That s--t wasn't even funny. Come on now," one person wrote. "That's so f---king wrong. You shouldn't even wanna admit to being in it," another said.
And he wrote back, defending himself by saying he was drunk and claiming it was self-defense.
"Hey it wasnt on purpose I was joking and I thought the guy was trying to harm me so I punched [sic] self defense," he wrote to two people, according to a screen grab of a now-deleted Tweet provided to The Sun.
There also is an indication that the attackers were performing for the video -- one is heard saying, "Only in Baltimore," and another mentions the worldstarhiphop site before the pummeling.
That site has been criticized for appealing to the lowest common demoninator, and attracting nothing but street and school fights from around the country. Recently, a fight at Howard County school led to an arrest. The danger is that people will play for the camera, and if that is the motive here then the Internet site has gone from voyeuristic to participatory.
Twitter conversations often occur in a vacuum. They may spark a conversation or even become a so-called "trending topic," but they tend to get buried in new conversations. The man in question also eventually deleted his account. The video, however, aired on a local television station and caught fire on message boards such as 4chan, where insomniac posters began diving into social media to determine who posted the video and who threw the punch.
Soon, screenshots of a Facebook page purported to be of the suspect - a 20-year-old aspiring male model and party promoter - were being matched to stills from the video, accompanied by what they claimed was his phone number and email address.
Attempts to reach the alleged suspect were unsuccessful, but The Sun confirmed that his Twitter account was taken down amid the furor Tuesday.