Why Did a Bunch of People on the Internet Donate $700,000 to a Bullied Bus Monitor?

Culture and technology.
March 11 2013 12:00 AM

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 indiegogo.com.
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.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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.

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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?