Gizmodo has a really excellent story up today about one woman’s fight to rescue her reputation after someone she’d never met decided to punish her online for being a “rich bitch.” This all started with a debate on Facebook over a teenager who had taken a smiling selfie at Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Two women who had never met got into an argument about it in the comments section of a local news station:

Monika Glennon was among those defending the teen, saying that kids make mistakes, that at least she was visiting the site, and that the condemnation by an internet mob “shows the same judgmental and senseless pack mentality that led to this horrific time in history to begin with.”

A woman named Mollie Rosenblum disagreed. She responded to several of the teen selfie supporters, including Glennon, saying that Auschwitz was a somber place for reflection and not an appropriate place to take selfies. She identified herself as being of Jewish descent and suggested that others didn’t have a full grasp of the Holocaust. Glennon responded to Rosenblum, telling her Auschwitz isn’t “her” place, that it “belongs to all and was a former killing zone of all,” including, originally, Polish people.

And that was it. The argument ended and everyone moved on with their lives. Except Mollie Rosenblum didn’t move on. She researched Glennon and then invented a story about her cheating on her husband. She submitted that story to a site called She’s A Homewrecker:

The author of the Homewrecker post claimed that she and her husband had used Glennon as their realtor and that everything was going great until one evening when she walked in on Glennon having sex with her husband on the floor of a home the couple had been scheduled to see. The unnamed woman went into graphic detail about the sex act and claimed she’d taken photos that she used to get everything from her husband in a divorce. The only photo she posted though was Glennon’s professional headshot, taken from her bio page on Re/Max’s site.

As it happened, after Rosenblum submitted the fake story the Homewrecker site sat on it (possibly because they couldn’t verify any of it?) for nearly a year. So when the story finally appeared online, the minor argument on Facebook was long in the past. The Homewrecker story might never have spread much beyond the site if not for another person named Ryan Baxter who posted a link to it on Glennon’s Re/Max realtor page and also sent it to her husband, her family, and even her bosses.

Monika Glennon spent $100,000 forcing the owners of the Homewrecker site to reveal who had posted the false story about her. She eventually got Mollie Rosenblum’s name. When Rosenblum learned about the disaster her story had caused she wrote a truly amazing “apology” on Facebook in which she admitted to lying about everything but suggested Glennon was a terrible person who still hadn’t learned her lesson about how to treat people online. Yes, really. Here’s a sample of that:

Monika Glennon, to my knowledge, has never cheated on her husband. She has sued me in federal court and I will gladly pay $10 a month for the rest of my life to prevent the judgement from impacting my credit rating. While Mrs. Glennon is not an adulterous woman to my knowledge, she is guilty IN MY OPINION, of facebook trolling the wrong person. Yet somehow, she seems to have learned nothing from this experience.

Again, how does the person who tried to destroy someone online with a lie wind up feeling the other party needs to learn some online etiquette? After seeing Rosenblum’s Facebook post, Glennon decided to confront the problem directly. She contacted Rosenblum and asked her to meet for lunch.

The meeting lasted four hours.

“She had thought I was this mean, rich bitch. That’s the problem with social media. You just make these assumptions about people,” Glennon said. “After meeting me, she did an affidavit admitting everything she did. She understood who I was then.”

Rosenblum finally issued a real apology to Glennon online. But there’s one more coda to this story. During her pursuit of justice, Glennon also learned that Ryan Baxter, the person who actually took the Homewrecker posting and spread it to Glennon’s family, was actually a woman from California named Hannah Lupian. Another complete stranger.

What I think this story really exemplifies is the way in which social media invites people to engage in something called altruistic punishment. I wrote about this back in 2015 so I’ll just quote a bit of what I said then:

Novelist Douglas Preston has written an excellent e-book about the topic of altruistic punishment. Preston became interested in the topic after he wrote something about the Amanda Knox case online and became the target of a relentless online mob harassing him for having the wrong opinions.

What Preston discovered is a pocket of social science research which applies to a disturbing percentage of our online interactions. Altruistic punishment, simply put, is the expression of negative emotions toward those who fail to cooperate with the group. It is a pressure tactic designed to whip people into line with the tribe and its goals.

The purpose of altruistic punishment seems to be to fight the tendency to freeload. In a group where cooperation is necessary for survival, there will always be some who coast on the effort of others. Altruistic punishment may have developed as a way to discourage that kind of freeloading. But with the advent of social media, it seems to apply to everything and everyone who fails to get in line with the group’s priorities.

The scary thing about altruistic punishment is that human beings seem wired to take pleasure in it. If you’ve ever wanted the simple answer to why there are so many unpleasant jerks online, it’s because they get a genuine rush out of being unpleasant jerks online. They are convinced they are doing something important, even noble, by punishing the tribe’s detractors.

This, I believe, is the reason two complete strangers set about trying to destroy the life and reputation of someone they didn’t even know. Mollie Rosenblum wanted to punish Glennon for having the wrong opinion about an Auschwitz selfie and when that didn’t work out on Facebook, she invented a story about adultery to make sure Monika Glennon got what she deserved. Meanwhile, Ryan Baxter aka Hannah Lupian, also wanted to make sure Glennon (and others mentioned on the Homewrecker site) got the punishment she believed they deserved.

This isn’t a problem limited to this one extreme instance. Altruistic punishment happens on social media every single day, especially on Twitter. Once you look for it, it’s hard to miss. The question is whether or not there’s anything we can do about it. If shaming strangers feels good, and social media makes it easy (and often anonymous) to engage in this behavior, it’s a good bet this is probably going to continue.