Last fortnight, the New York Times stood behind its new editorial board hire Sarah Jeong, after critics on the right dug up Jeong’s offensive tweets sarcastically mocking white people, saying things like “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men,” and using a #CancelWhitePeople hashtag.
The Times argued that Jeong’s tweets were a sort of counter-trolling response to sustained harassment she endured as a young Asian-American female technology reporter. Jeong’s critics noted that her offensive tweets weren’t in direct response to any harassment, and that they displayed a degree of hostility to white people that would be considered racist and out of bounds if directed toward any other group. Nonetheless, the Times did not fire her.
This was the right decision. People shouldn’t lose jobs and opportunities over old tweets. But if the New York Times did the right thing here, then, by the same standard, several prominent media companies, including the Times, have made wrong decisions in the recent past.
Nobody should be fired for tweets
Twitter is a microblogging site, which invites users to share thoughts and ideas in a form that can be no longer than 280 characters. People tweet about what other people are tweeting about or joking about on any given day. People tweet in response to other people’s tweets, or in response to ephemerally popular hashtags, or in reference to quickly forgotten memes.
When somebody unearths these tweets years later, screenshots them, and presents them without context, the original meaning is often obscured. Sarcasm or irony, which may have been evident to the original audience at the time the tweet was originally published, is stripped away.
Twitter is cool; it is a way for interesting and smart people to share their unfiltered thoughts in a way that mass audiences would never have seen before social media. It’s interesting to see comedians share rough jokes or to see editorial writers sniping at each other, or to see late-night political rants from celebrities who ordinarily wouldn’t speak in public without careful supervision from managers and publicists.
And you can tweet back to these people, and, while some celebrities and journalists avail themselves of blue-check tools that prevent them from ever having to look at the musings of ordinary users, many famous people will respond to you.
While Donald Trump has been criticized for his intemperate tweets and many observers are frightened when he tweets all-caps threats at foreign leaders, it is unprecedented for a US President to be so open about sharing his everyday thoughts with the public, and Trump’s Twitter provides a window into an office that is usually shielded from public view.
And, even more extraordinarily, that access goes both ways. While any given Trump tweet may garner tens of thousands of responses, the president’s penchant for blocking people who respond to him critically and occasionally retweeting random replies to his tweets suggests he actually reads his mentions. Whatever you think of Trump, that is kind of cool.
Because of Twitter, it has never been so easy to tell the people in power what you think, and because of Twitter, many of them will listen and answer you.
Mobbing people over “bad” tweets and hounding them out of jobs is a good way to create a new norm that discourages people from being forthright on social media. It threatens to turn Twitter from a place where people are freewheeling and unfiltered into an environment where people stay on message and work to promote their personal brand. If that happens, Twitter will just be Instagram.
Outrage mobs cross the political spectrum
In an explainer about the Jeong controversy, Vox characterized the practice of dredging up tweets and trying to get people fired over them an “alt right” tactic. In fact, outrage mobs are common on both the left and the right.
The original and archetypal Twitter mob was the one that went after publicist Justine Sacco in Dec. 2013. Sacco had only 170 Twitter followers, mostly her personal friends, and that’s who she thought her audience was. Before boarding an 11 her flight from London to South Africa, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!” The tweet went viral, becoming the top trending topic on Twitter while Sacco was asleep on the plane, oblivious to what was happening. By the time she landed, she was an international pariah and had lost her job. When journalist Jon Ronson contacted her two years later, while writing his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, she still hadn’t gotten her life back together.
In February 2018, the New York Times fired writer Quinn Norton within hours of announcing her hiring. Norton is a longtime expert in hacker culture, the Anonymous hacker collective and the Occupy movement, and, in some of her tweets, she had used an epithet offensive to gay people which is commonly used in the slang of these groups. She also said that she considered the hacker Andrew “weev” Auernheimer to be a friend, though she does not condone his beliefs. Weev became a neo-Nazi while he was serving time in federal prison on a conviction that was ultimately vacated by a federal appeals court, and he now runs the racist Daily Stormer website. The Times decided it would not defend her use of the epithet or her refusal to disavow weev and fired her.
In April 2018, The Atlantic hired and then quickly fired former National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, after critics found a podcast in which Williamson said he believed that abortion was murder, and that, therefore, he believed women who have abortions should be subject to the same punishment as murderers, up to and including the death penalty by hanging. Williamson’s critics complained that The Atlantic should not be publishing a writer who advocated purging 75 million American women, and editor Jeffrey Goldberg capitulated after two weeks of outrage.
In May 2018, Roseanne Barr, star of the breakout sitcom revival Roseanne, tweeted that Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett looked like “muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes had a baby.” Jarrett is black, and comparing black people to apes is racist and deeply offensive. Although Roseanne’s show had been a huge success, ABC cancelled it swiftly in the wake of the tweet. Roseanne claimed that she had been tweeting while under the influence of the sedative Ambien, and also claimed that she didn’t intend the racist connotation and that she didn’t know that Jarrett, who has light skin, was black.
In July 2018, Disney/Marvel fired writer/director James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 after right-wing social-media personality Mike Cernovich dredged up years-old tweets in which Gunn had joked about rape and child molestation. Gunn got his start in film at the low-budget studio Troma known for brutal horror films, and his early studio projects were horror films dealing with subjects like cannibalism and parasitic infestations. Disney knew his history of working with transgressive and offensive subject matter when they hired him to bring his unique perspective to an adaptation of the obscure Guardians property. He turned that into a billion dollar franchise, but he was fired within hours of Cernovich’s discovery of his old tweets.
Twitter mobs have come after New York Times columnist Bari Weiss on several occasions, but perhaps the most sustained bout of outrage came in February of 2018 when Weiss tweeted: “Immigrants: they get the job done,” in reference to US Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel. The cause of the outrage was that Nagasu is not, in fact, an immigrant; her parents are from Japan, but she was born in California. Weiss’s critics believed it was racist to erroneously refer to an American of Japanese extraction as an “immigrant.” Weiss kept her job, but the outrage over her tweet wasn’t confined to Twitter; somebody leaked an internal NYT group chat attacking Weiss to the Huffington Post.
Holding them to their standards
While progressive outlets like Vox view Twitter-dredging as an “alt-right” tactic, right-wingers like Cernovich believe they’re subjecting outrage-prone progressives to their own medicine. The truth is that large institutions haven’t figured out that a getting a few thousand angry tweets about something represents only a tiny group of extremely-online rage addicts, and is not indicative of broader public opinion. As a result, institutions are prone to overreacting to Twitter outrage. And as long as outrage mobs are effective, ideologues of all stripes will continue to rile them up to score points against their political opponents.
There is no coherent rule for responding to outrage that justifies the firing of Williamson, Norton and Gunn while also justifying the retention of Jeong. Her transgressions are at least as offensive as theirs. But if we want to hold institutions to any standard, it should be the Sarah Jeong standard. Writers should get to traffic in controversial ideas and even make inappropriate jokes, and nobody should listen to the kind of people who mess their diapers over bad tweets. It was wrong to fire Norton, wrong to fire Williamson and wrong to fire Gunn. The key is to get the Times to acknowledge that its defense of Jeong cannot be reconciled with its previous treatment of Norton, and that firing Norton was a mistake.
Even Roseanne, who was fired over a tweet that was both highly offensive and very recent, probably could have been treated more gently. She is a talented comedian with a history of mental health problems, and, while institutions cannot and should not tolerate racism, there are less punitive ways to deal with inappropriate behavior from a person who is clearly undergoing a crisis. If ABC had forced Roseanne to apologize, sent her to rehab, and delayed her show’s return to midseason, it probably would have been sufficient punishment.
And although harsh punishment may have been justified by her flagrantly racist tweet, carrying out such a punishment put Disney, which owns both ABC and Marvel in a difficult position. Precedents established by punitive responses to bad tweets, even in extreme cases like Roseanne’s, lead to bad outcomes in other cases. In this case, it led to a new norm that bad tweets were a zero-tolerance firing offense at Disney. That was an invitation for people like Cernovich to start digging into the tweets of outspoken Democrats and Trump opponents, looking for dirt. Cernovich went after Gunn in retaliation for Roseanne’s firing, and Disney likely felt it had to take the same action in response to his offensive tweets that it had taken in response to hers.
If this norm continues, it will lead to more firings of increasingly questionable justification, and then everyone with something to lose is just going to stop tweeting.
It’s good to have a lively social media discourse, and it’s good to have interesting writers making provocative arguments, and it’s good to have cool Marvel space movies with wild soundtracks. So maybe the people we should be angry at are the people who keep trying to destroy all these things over nonsense.
Daniel Friedman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter @DanFriedman81