The weird and calculated mob force of the Internet is felt more and more by politicians and businesses. Rush Limbaugh is able to command contrition merely by directing his 14 million listeners to send a blistering email in the direction of any hapless Republican who might have dissed him. I’ve been getting it lately from a less obvious source: some outraged soccer fans.
On Feb. 24, I went on Hardball on MSNBC with Chris Matthews to discuss Rupert Murdoch’s apology for the cartoon in the New York Post equating President Obama with a chimpanzee. I said that one of the few times I can remember that a Murdoch paper apologized was in regard to a soccer match in Liverpool in which 96 people were killed in a rampage of fans. Chris Matthews can hardly have a significant audience in Liverpool; nevertheless, I instantly became the target of an organized Liverpool-defense web brigade.
Tracing me to Newser, the Liverpudlians have sent thousands of emails demanding an apology because I characterized the melee as a rampage (now I’ll get it for calling it a “melee”). Their technique is a low-level, but continuing, disruption—our message boards are filled with querulousness and ranting (more than just the usual querulousness and ranting) and our minds filled with this constant background anger and threats. “Just apologize,” say my colleagues. “What does it matter?”
(A 2008 memorial service for the Hillsborough disaster. AP Image)
True, in this instance, it hardly matters. And, indeed, knowing little about the incident—save for the fact that Murdoch’s paper apologized—I did fumble certain facts. The incident did not happen in Liverpool, but at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, about 70 miles from Liverpool. And perhaps it was not exclusively a rampage, i.e. excited behavior that is reckless or uncontrolled—or rampage may seem to imply some collective dastardly intention (in fact, it does not necessarily imply that) where there was none. Some reports call it a “huge crush,” or a “rush,” of way too many fans funneled into a much too small area. Some blame it on the police for opening certain gates and creating the “huge crush” or “rush.” So, indeed, let me apologize for my lack of nuance and word choice. I do not have a personal view of what happened here; I’m merely echoing what I have read.
Whatever the accurate description is, the event seems to have become a rallying point for a group of Liverpool loyalists dedicated to insisting on Liverpool’s and its dead fans' virtue. This insistence takes the form, along with so many other Internet campaigns and jihads, of implacable, anonymous, unrelenting, and unreasoned (much of the mail seems to repeat a set form) mailing and venting. It’s all about as bully-boy as you can get.
The best and most logical practice, it seems obvious, would be to do nothing. Delete the mail, ignore the venom. But I will tell you, it ain’t so easy. It becomes a systemic infection, a discordant background noise that won’t go away. Its power is invidious. It’s a frightening sort of…rampage.
In the end, it’s hard not to capitulate.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org