“Burn Her at the Stake”

Amanda Knox was acquitted of murder. Why do so many people still hate her so much?

Amanda Knox, the U.S. student convicted of killing her British flatmate in Italy three years ago, sits in the courtroom after a break during a trial session in Perugia March 12, 2011.
Amanda Knox, the U.S. student convicted of killing her British flatmate in Italy three years ago, sits in the courtroom after a break during a trial session in Perugia March 12, 2011

Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

This piece was adapted from Trial by Fury, by Douglas Preston, available for download as a Kindle Single.

she’s a skanky, lying sociopathic murderer from a family of camera hungry hicks
The bitch needs to die naked tasting her own blood
Cartwheeling grinning murdering slag needs to be executed in the Towers of London.

                            —random online comments about Amanda Knox

On Nov. 2, 2007, in the ancient and lovely hill town of Perugia, Italy, a British girl named Meredith Kercher was found murdered in the cottage she shared with several other students. Four days later, police and prosecutors announced they had arrested the three killers, among them a 20-year-old college student from Seattle named Amanda Knox. The ensuing investigation, trial, conviction, and appeal lasted five years. On March 26, an Italian court ruled that she must be retried for murder. The case may drag on for years to come.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this case, at least for me, was the savage outcry against Amanda on the Internet, which continues to this day. On March 29, 2013, as I was putting the final touches on this article, I conducted an experiment. I Googled “Amanda Knox” and got 7.1 million hits. I then tried “Amanda Knox” and “bitch,” which returned 1.7 million hits. “Amanda Knox” and “pervert” came back at 880,000 hits, and her name coupled with “slut” yielded 380,000. The quotations that opened this article were gathered in a few minutes of surfing.

The extreme viciousness of the anti-Amanda commentariage is startling. There are countless statements calling for the murdering, raping, torturing, throat-cutting, frying, hanging, electrocution, burning, and rotting in hell of Amanda, along with her sisters, family, friends, and supporters.

Why? And why in general are there so many savage, crazy, vicious, and angry people on the Internet?

I was drawn into the case by accident. While living in Florence, I teamed up with an Italian journalist, Mario Spezi, and wrote a book about Italy’s most notorious serial killer, known only as the Monster of Florence—a murderer so terrifying he makes Jack the Ripper look like Mister Rogers. Together Mario and I published a book about the case, The Monster of Florence.

Giuliano Mignini, the chief prosecutor in the Amanda Knox case, was also the prosecutor in the Monster case. We criticized Mignini in our book. He then did to me what he would do to Amanda a year later: He hauled me in for an interrogation with no attorney or interpreter present, accused me of being an accessory to murder, among other heinous crimes, and demanded I confess. He threw Spezi into prison and accused him of being the Monster of Florence. (Later the charges against us were dropped and Mignini was investigated for abuse of office.)

I began speaking out in favor of Amanda. My first foray was in a mild interview with the journalist Candace Dempsey on the website of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the local paper in Amanda’s hometown. I told of my experience with Mignini and said I thought Amanda was innocent.

Then the comments poured in. I was stunned at their ferociousness against Amanda. What surprised me also were the blazing personal attacks against me. They claimed I was exploiting a murder to sell books. They claimed that my interest in Amanda was sexual. They said I was mentally ill. They Photoshopped grotesque pictures of me and posted them. They created elaborate PowerPoint presentations that aimed to prove beyond all doubt what a contemptible, disgusting, racist, perverted, money-grubbing scumbag I truly was.

Like a fool I waded into the fray, defending Amanda and myself. I attacked my attackers and countered their criticisms. The more I fought, the more the tide of vituperation came back at me. Finally, I came to my senses and stopped. But I continued to defend Amanda on television and noticed that every time I appeared, the Internet exploded with more extreme attacks. I have no doubt that when this piece is published, the Amanda-haters will go incandescent once again. It made me wonder: Who are these people? Why would so many people, with no skin in the game, devote their time and energy to seeing this girl punished—and to vilifying all those who came to her defense?

I did some research. The anti-Amanda universe coalesced around three websites devoted to seeing her punished. The administrators of these sites and their followers were utterly and completely obsessed by hatred for Amanda. It had literally taken over their lives. The chief moderator of one, according to statistics on her profile, has blogged about Amanda an average of seven times per day, every day, for the past five years. The anti-Amanda writings of another add up to more words than the Bible, War and Peace, Finnegans Wake, The Iliad, and The Odyssey combined. Five years later, these websites are spewing more than ever.

The answer to this human behavior lies, as many such answers do, in evolutionary biology. Experiments show that when some people punish others, the reward part of their brain lights up like a Christmas tree. It turns out we humans avidly engage in something anthropologists call “altruistic punishment.”

What is altruistic punishment? It is when a person punishes someone who has done nothing against them personally but has violated what they perceive to be the norms of society. Why “altruistic”? Because the punisher is doing something that benefits society at large, with no immediate personal gain. Altruistic punishment is normally a good thing. Our entire criminal justice system is based on it. In our evolutionary past, small groups of hunter-gatherers needed enforcers, individuals who took it upon themselves to punish slackers and transgressors to maintain group cohesion. We evolved this way. As a result, some people are born to be punishers. They are hard-wired for it.

What does all this have to do with Amanda Knox? Almost all the nasty comments about her follow a pattern. Even though she did nothing to them, they are all demanding her punishment. This is altruistic punishment gone haywire, in which the anti-Amanda bloggers have become a cybermob not unlike the witch-hunts of medieval Europe or lynch mobs in the American South. These mobs form all over the Internet, and not just in the Amanda case, assailing everyone from Anne Hathaway to Katie Roiphe. Everywhere you look on the Internet you find self-appointed punishers at work. Never in human history has a system developed like the Internet, which allows for the free rein of our punishing instincts, conducted with complete anonymity, with no checks or balances, no moderation, and no accountability. On the Internet, our darkest evolutionary biology runs riot.

This piece was adapted from Trial by Fury, by Douglas Preston, available for download as a Kindle Single.