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.