Thursday morning, the Internet awoke to news that Martin Shkreli had been arrested on fraud charges. It was not long before pictures emerged of the 32-year-old entrepreneur being led away from his apartment building in Manhattan by police. The shots of Shkreli, a fallen villain dressed in jeans and a hoodie, were shared over and over, accelerating the gawking effect of the classic perp walk. People were giddy. Someone tweeted, “There is a Santa Claus.” Said another: “I love a little karma with my coffee in the morning.” The Internet, which has obsessed over Shkreli for months, finally got justice–or did it?
The reason for the rejoicing Thursday is because Shkreli has recently done two things people found deeply offensive. First, in September, the world learned Shkreli had acquired the rights to Daraprim, a drug that prevents people with AIDS from contracting toxoplasmosis (an infection that causes brain damage) and hiked the price from $13.50 per pill to $750—somewhere north of a 5,000 per cent increase. Second, more recently, Shkreli purchased the one and only copy of a new Wu-Tang Clan album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, for $2 million. The album was sold with the explicit instructions that its owner could not reproduce it to sell commercially, meaning unless he chose to play it publicly somewhere, Shkreli could, if he so chose, be the only person on Earth who heard it.
The reaction was as expected, and typical of the 2010s, where lately it’s accepted that a good old-fashioned public shaming ought to be the immediate, loud, collective response to anyone the hive-mind feels has morally erred. After the Daraprim price gouge was discovered, social media users went predictably nuts (as they did later when it came out that he had bought the Wu-Tang album—had it been anyone else, that person would have been revered; Shkreli was reviled). Internet users called him a “morally bankrupt sociopath” and a “garbage monster.” He was, as the BBC put it, “the most hated man in America.”
Yet, in both instances, Shkreli was unrepentant in the face of very harsh online public backlash. In fact, Shkreli appeared to relish the negative attention, taking to Twitter regularly to address his haters directly. Regarding Daraprim, someone asked Shkreli “how does raising the price of the drug allow more patients to get access to it?” He replied, “lots of paradoxes in life.” Another asked him, “do u not care that people can’t afford this and could die without it?” Shkreli tweeted back: “no. everyone will be able to get it. you’re being brainwashed.” Just this week he joked on Twitter that if Bernie Sanders “was a parasite what would he be? TOXOPLASMOSIS!”
This guy deserved something, didn’t he?
Another instance of public shaming in 2015 comes to mind at this juncture: that of Walter Palmer. He is the American dentist who, as the Telegraph revealed in late July, killed Cecil the Lion, one of Zimbabwe’s most beloved and iconic lions. The general public was immediately apoplectic and took to social media in a collective rage to attack Palmer, often very personally. Palmer eventually went into hiding and his dental practice briefly shut down.
As it happens, Palmer was also temporarily the subject of an investigation, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sought to determine whether the killing had been illegal. There was, equally, a simultaneous investigation launched in Zimbabwe. In the end, neither country charged Palmer with anything. For the online warriors, it was undoubtedly a disappointing end, had they been paying much attention by that point. Yet, justice—the kind that exists in a system beyond the Internet—had been activated.
Which might make us wonder about Shkreli. At what point will we, who were so annoyed by this jerk only weeks ago, accept that he has been brought to justice? Was it this week, with his arrest for an unrelated crime nobody knew about until now? Was the sight of him being hauled off by police, under investigation, punishment enough? What were we fighting for, anyway? Will his arrest mean the cost of Daraprim drops, or that the Wu-Tang album goes to someone better?
And what happens if, after all is said and done, it’s determined that he’s innocent—or that, at the very least, he won’t serve any time in prison? Technically, justice will have been served, but likely not the way we wanted it to. Not in the way that feels right.
That’s the thing with Thursday’s arrest: it feels good. It feels like all those of us who bashed Shkreli from our social media platforms were correct in our vitriol and disdain, that our sense of righteousness is on point, that we know best what is right and wrong. It feels like justice. And, in fact, it is. But it is worth remembering that the Internet is not the one that ultimately served it.
The week in pictures: 7 days, 15 photos
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Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) jump as part of their winter training in temperature of negative 26 degrees Celsius at China's border with Russia.