The Browser

Mob Justice

Why did a bunch of people on the Internet donate $700,000 to a bullied bus monitor?

A journalist checks out the fundraising website

A journalist checks out the Indiegogo fundraising campaign for bullied bus monitor Karen Klein on June 21. The campaign raised more than $700,000.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Last summer, a Toronto nutritionist named Max Sidorov was surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a video titled “Making the Bus Monitor Cry.” It showed a group of young boys aboard a school bus in upstate New York cruelly taunting the 68-year-old woman who was charged with supervising them. The boys call Karen Klein “ugly” and a “fat ass” and, yes, make her cry.

Sidorov felt moved to do something nice for this beleaguered woman he’d never met. He created a donation site on Indiegogo with the stated goal of raising $5,000 for Klein as a token of people’s kindness. “Lets give her something she will never forget,” he wrote to prospective donors. “A vacation of a lifetime!”

By the time Sidorov’s funding drive ended a month later, more than 32,000 people had given a total of $703,168. Klein accepted the money and soon after retired from her bus monitor job. She gave $100,000 to establish the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation. She kept the rest.

When we watch the truly nasty scene that unfolded on the school bus that day, we all want to give Karen Klein a big hug. We might even, like Max Sidorov, want to send her on a lovely vacation. It seems much less obvious that we’d want to hand her $700,000.

Compare the 10 minutes of verbal abuse that Klein endures in this video to the ordeal of Lydia Tillman—a Colorado woman who was raped, savagely beaten, doused with bleach, and left for dead in an apartment her attacker had set on fire. Tillman survived after leaping out a second-story window. She suffered a stroke, was put in a coma, and awoke five weeks later without speech or motor skills. Her brother launched an Indiegogo campaign that managed to raise a smidge more than its goal of $65,000. This money wasn’t meant to fund a vacation for Tillman or to let her quit her job, but rather to pay for a surgery that would allow her to eat solid food again.

It’s not my intention to create a hierarchy of deserving victims. But surely we can agree that, in hindsight, the monetary outpouring for Karen Klein seems disproportionate. Yes, Klein earned sympathy partly because her abuse was captured on video. It also didn’t hurt that Sidorov’s fundraising page got linked on Reddit. At a certain point, though, the cause developed its own momentum and snowballed out of control.

Donations reached $5,000 within the first two hours, according to Sidorov, and were up to $100,000 by the end of the first day. People who went to the Web page could easily see that there was already more than enough money to send Karen Klein on 20 vacations. They didn’t care. They just kept giving.

“When it got to $300,000,” Sidorov recalls, “I thought, Hey, this is a lot of money, and I posted on the Indiegogo page that maybe some percentage of the donations should go to anti-bullying initiatives.” But that’s not what the donors—most of whom had given about $20 each—wanted to happen. “There was a big reaction. People said no. They wanted all the money to go to Karen.”

Stephen Reicher is a psychology professor at Scotland’s University of St Andrews. He researches the psychological foundations of crowd behavior. (When I first emailed him, he replied from India, where he was observing the Kumbh Mela—“the biggest crowd event in the world.”) I asked Reicher about the Karen Klein case. Why had 32,000 people eagerly pigpiled to help this one particular woman?  

Reicher attributes the giving frenzy, in part, to concretization. “For an abstract idea to affect us,” he says, “it often helps if it’s turned into something concrete and embodied. To say lots of people are suffering is an abstract concept. To see this one woman suffering, and be able to help her, is more concrete.”

Reicher suggests that the “archetypal elements” involved here played a role as well. As we watch the video, we might flash back to moments when we were bullied on a school bus. Or feel guilt about having bullied others. The video also pits strongly defined, archetypal personas in opposition to each other—brash youth versus wise elder. (Max Sidorov thinks it’s this juxtaposition of foulmouthed little kids and a weeping older woman that really screws with people’s emotions.)

Is there something inherently different about crowd behavior on the Internet? Certainly, material that might incite a crowd can spread faster and further via social media than it can offline. And Reicher argues that the Web is especially suited to exerting “metaperceptual influence”—or, more simply put, “it affects what we think other people think.” Seeing lots of Facebook likes or retweets or charitable donations can guide our own actions.

But Reicher also feels that the Web may exaggerate the distinction between group members and outsiders. “In person, a crowd can see that we’re all, for instance, fans of the same sports team. We see cues to that group membership. But we can also see cues to individual identity—visible things that distinguish us from each other.” When we’re isolated at our computers, interacting fairly anonymously online, we might see many more clues about group allegiance and many fewer clues about individual humanity. So we act more purely in terms of group values and concerns. “If we see a person whose plight we associate with ourselves, who we see as one of us suffering, that purer group process will heighten our generosity. And when someone violates our group norms, there will be powerfully negative behavior toward them.”

John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, has studied “deindividuation”—the loss of personal identity within groups. “Deindividuation happens online as well as offline,” says Suler. “But there might be a tendency toward it online due to the enhanced opportunity for anonymity. Deindividuation unleashes the emotions and wishes below the surface of people. It can steer us toward punishment or altruism.”

And lest you think online crowd behavior is all Karen Klein-style altruism, consider the punishment the Internet herd meted out to Lindsey Stone. Stone was on a work trip to Washington, D.C., when she posed for an obnoxious photo in Arlington National Cemetery. She unwisely posted the photo, which shows her flipping the bird next to a sign that reads “Silence and Respect,” on her Facebook page. It went viral. A Facebook group soon formed—30,000 glommed on at one point—and dedicated itself to getting Stone fired from her job at a Massachusetts nonprofit that supports adults with disabilities. Within a matter of weeks, mission accomplished. The herd had trampled Lindsey Stone.

Charities have always used poignant, individual stories to play on people’s emotions and open up their wallets. But the idea was that you should donate to the charity, not to the individual sad sack with the most heart-wrenching video or the most prominent link on Reddit. Likewise, political and social causes have long used the specter of bad behavior to lobby for new laws and policies—but rarely to round up an angry mob that tracks down specific offenders. It seems we’ve decided it’s more fun (and much easier) to collaborate in making one person happy or unhappy than it is to work together to change the underlying context.

As for Max Sidorov, things pretty much got back to normal after he handed over that $700,000 check to Karen Klein. He’s still a nutritionist. Still believes in karma. “Whatever happens is for a reason,” he says, “so she deserves that money.” He’s been trying to launch a do-gooder social media platform called LoveDeeder—using a combination of his personal savings and some spillover funds that people sent his way in recognition of the solid he’d done for Klein—but the money ran out, and the project has stalled.

Meanwhile, a homeless man in Kansas City, Mo., is the beneficiary of an ongoing giving campaign that’s now up to $178,000. Why? Because he refrained from stealing a woman’s engagement ring. There’s still time for you to chip in. Go ahead, you’ll feel better once you join the crowd.