Here's a question. Three months ago, had you heard of Cecil the Lion? I certainly hadn't, and I doubt that many, outside of the Oxford-based group that studied him, would have been able to pick him out of a watering-hole police line-up. But his illegal hunting by a US dentist a month ago catapulted the black-maned big cat to fame in a justifiable maelstrom of online anger, vitriol and protest.
The digital news revolution is characterised by this sort of story. A probably common event that once would have been relegated to the back pages of The Times now hijacks the news agenda. Aided by the guaranteed page views, retweets and click-throughs that only social media-driven furore can provide, it swiftly becomes the headline story.
News stories supercharged by the fuel of social media - and there are increasingly greater numbers of them - need resolutions that match the speed of the news cycle itself. The characters involved are quickly identified and indelibly labelled the victim and the perpetrator. Demands for specific retribution quickly mount: 'Punish Him!', sounds the Twitterati battle-cry.
The result is that companies and governments are forced into short-term actions, which are usually personal in nature. Those involved suddenly find themselves with an irresistible desire to spend more time with their family.
At its core, digital news demands instant gratification in the form of an individual's suffering. And perhaps controversially, I don't think this is a bad thing at all. Organisations are not amorphous masses. They are made up of people, decision makers, all with personal motivations and purposes. Somewhere along the line, no matter the situation or scale of organisation, a human made a decision. They may have made the decision as part of a rotten culture or belief structure, but all the same it was a decision.
I believe that by demanding personal responses to larger crises, wider society has a tool that can be used to restrain hubris. A tool that can keep the actions of the powerful - and the organisations they run - in check. No-one remembers the name of the CEO when the Exxon Valdez foundered in the Fort William Sound in 1989, despite his slow responses to the crisis and poor demeanour during subsequent interviews. His treatment - retiring with honours at the mandatory age of 65 in 1993, 4 years later - would do little to personally guide a future CEO making decisions on social benefit vs. profit.
But 'Fred the Shred' and his public vilification will live on in infamy, from his nickname to his 'de-frocking' in the removal of his knighthood. Senior bankers are now cognisant and concerned with public opinion for fear of their own jobs, and are less likely to take profit if it comes attached with social harm. A bank might be able to accept a fine for FOREX manipulation and move on - but a fired and humiliated CEO cannot so easily be rehabilitated.
In the Middle Ages, a woman tired of a philandering or drunken husband would surround him with her friends and, loudly banging pots and pans, parade him around the village square. I imagine it was immediately effective - and served as a warning to other would-be adulterers. Digital communications have, in effect, recreated that square - and the village stocks - for globalised communities.
The challenge occurs when the situation is not quite so clear cut, and the court of public opinion makes judgement without due consideration, as could perhaps be the case with Camila Batmanghelidjh at Kids Company - in the witch hunt I fear that the kids in need have been poorly served. The crowd is not always wise. In these more complex situations it is the myriad of people stoking the fire that must consider the individual responsibility of their actions.
It is true that the story of poor Cecil will not have drastic impacts on the current state of illegal poaching. Delta may have stopped offering to air-freight remains, but plenty of other carriers still will, and money for anti-poaching initiatives will remain woefully inadequate. Solving these problems takes time - time that the Tanzanian Elephant population (down 60% in just 5 years) doesn't have.
But after Cecil's Dentist was forced into hiding when 'Lion-Killer' was spray-painted on his home and pickled pigs feet were left on his driveway, hunters themselves may think again about paying to kill the King of Cats.
$50,000 was apparently a price worth paying - we can only hope that well-directed humiliation in the village squares of the internet and rolling news offers a stronger injunction.Suggest a correction