Free Speech, Politics, Social Media, Top Stories

Nobody Should Listen to Twitter Mobs

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.

Quinn Norton

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.

Bari Weiss

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 OldDon’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter @DanFriedman81 

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41 Comments

  1. I guess the left can feel free at any time to articulate what their speech policing standards really are because there isn’t a human being who can convincingly do so at this point in time. For those paying attention they haven’t even tried during the Sarah Jeong affair to address this. It sure seems to have an intellectually embarrassing “it’s different when our side does it” component.

    This isn’t a double standard, it is a complete lack of any standard.

    The reason there isn’t a standard is because they are incapable of creating a standard that is viewpoint neutral. They are quite happy with changing standards as they go along with a heaping spoonful of rationalizations and what they believe to be cultural judges that lean their way. Every time they “win” one of these debates, another 1000 people start manufacturing their own pitchforks and torches and booking tickets to DC.

    People want a standard so they can at least have some predictability about what 5 seconds of behavior will get them perma-banned from their own hard fought career. This only seems fair.
    Allowing social media mobs to dynamically create impossible to define standards has left everyone with their head spinning.

    • The apparent inconsistency is because the Left views the Right as their outgroup. Thus, unfairness cannot exist when dealing with them. Think of a primitive tribe who thinks nothing of robbing travelers who cross their tula. That which helps us is good, and that which harms our enemies is good. Looked at this way, there is no need for “consistency”, it is altogether correct.

      An excellent essay which may help you wrap your brain around this concept is “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup”. It really opened my mind and I understand so much better now.

      • Rich Russell says

        Thank you. That is a great insightful essay. I bookmarked it for future reference, and for ease of sharing. Every commenter here should read it

    • Steve says

      “it’s different when our side does it”

      That’s not the leftist position. Their position is that racism *against whites* is impossible since racism is rooted in power differentials. Since whites are heirs to historical power and beneficiaries of oppression they cannot be discriminated against by those who are structurally beneath them in relative power.

      All of this is profoundly evil and wholly alien to Western civilization, but that’s more or less what they claim. (It’s also riddled with inconsistencies — there have been massive power imbalances and exploitation *between* different groups of “people of color” throughout history, and continuing today. Singling out whites is logically incoherent.)

  2. Enough is enough says

    Roseanne was right. Valerie Jarret DOES look like a character from the 70’s Apes films. Her face has the same weird smoothness to it that the rubber masks in those films had. The nose is quite similar too.

  3. Saturn Black says

    This rise of pc culture seems to have corresponded fairly closely with the rise of social media. I remember a simpler time when all we had were chat rooms and online forums. There were plenty of trolls and arguments breaking out, but nobody (esp. the media) took it seriously.

    Anyway, this article seems like just another deceptive attempt by the left to come across as bipartisan. Lynch mobs on the right? I had to laugh. Twitter outright bans and shadow bans right wing commentators, meanwhile left wing activists are allowed to have hundreds of accounts which they use to make it appear like a certain issue has widespread support. I don’t see anything here which reflects negatively on the left. Of course an article promoting the upside of social media would by necessity be leftist since social media is run by the left for the left.

    If we want consistency, that racist twat should be dumped. The NY Times is just showing its political stance. It is typical of the left to defend anti-white racists while demonising mere anti-multiculturalism on the right. All of this is about political conflict and you’re a fool if you think otherwise.

    I don’t even use social media any more. All it seems to be good for is as a political weapon for leftists, for governments to pry into people’s private lives, and for making people miserable and jealous (studies show higher social media use corresponds to higher levels of unhappiness).

    I propose a different title: “Nobody Should Listen to Leftist Mobs.” You’re all pretty much the same – it’s all about destroying and undermining any tall poppy that springs up, all in the name of equality, and tricking each other into thinking that this constitutes some kind of utopia. You don’t want individuals to have the ability to rise up and improve their lives based on their own innate positive qualities, because that would just show the mob how disgusting and weak and driven by jealousy it is.

    It’s kinda funny how we on the right are generally open about our political stance, meanwhile you leftists generally seem to want to hide yours. Life is just that simple and good over here that there’s no need to trick anyone. But your utopian vision by necessity must involve deception, because it isn’t real. Twitter isn’t “cool” – it’s overflowing with anger and misery and nastiness.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Well said Saturn Black
      WHilst I consider that the shaming of people for their views is wrong no matter who does it, I also recognise that it is a tactic overwhelmingly used by the left. This is simply because by their very nature leftists are not debaters. Hence, their main tactic in any argument is to go for the ad hominem by calling someone racist, sexist or and any of the other ists or phobics that they have beaten up into massive evils.
      So just about every argument with a leftist is on a threshold question. And we never really get to have the real discussion. That is why I think the current politcal scene is so fraught.
      Whether an utterance is ist or phobic should not be important. The question should be whether an utterance is true.
      Unfortunately, the left have wasted so much energy in the sophistry of isms amand phobias that they have like mediaeval scholastics become tangled in irrelevancies. They take so much care to be ”nuanced” and ”sophisticated” over issues that are really fantasies. They have thus perverted the discourse, moving it from an attempt to discover the good to an attempt to obtain power.

      • Saturn Black says

        Yes it’s interesting how much their tactics resemble emotional abuse (“blaming, shaming and name-calling”). I suspect they often come from such backgrounds which is how they got so good at it.

        This was a really good talk on the subject by the founder of Quillette – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xAvkJpm7Nk – where she outlines their ideology and where it comes from and how it affects their world view. Since understanding this I’ve found it much easier to deal with them.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Regarding the rise of PC culture, Mrs. Grundy would say otherwise.

      • NeonCrusader says

        What is it with all the obscure Slate Star Codex references I keep spotting everywhere in the comments on Quillette these days?! Whatever it is, keep doing, it’s mighty entertaining.

    • Knollan says

      I absolutely read this as being critical of the way the SJW’s demonized jokes that were “in the moment” for some but let it slide when the target was (essentially) conservative whites. In other words, @Saturn I think the article is being critical of the left, just not as critical as you are.

      I think the article is also trying to support open-mindedness, but that does not land well if it is.

  4. Yeah, it was A-OK for Twitter mobs to take people’s jobs – right up to the point where the Right learned how to use this weapon and started using it on the Left. Now, suddenly columns call the entire tactic invalid and we need to stop it.

    Often when elections don’t go their way, our elites insist that because America is such a powerful entity in the world, its actions have repercussions on foreigners, so why shouldn’t they get to have a say (that is, a vote) in our elections? Naturally, these same elites would never acknowledge that their own institutions should be subject to the same treatment. That is, the NY Times has a powerful effect on our lives, whether we know it or not, so why shouldn’t we get to have a say in who is chosen for their editorial board? Why can’t we vote this Sarah Jeong off of that board?

    I am vocal in my objection to Sarah Jeong having any position at the New York Times. The position, properly filled requires someone with both competence and a conscience, Sarah has the first in excess and but not a shred of the second. I don’t think anyone should support someone who does not seem to be an actual believer in the values they espouse, but is instead a follower of convenience and absolutely comfortable it betraying those values when it serves her own ends.

  5. “There is nothing more fundamentally righteous than telling people like this idiot to go get fucked.”

    I agree, Friedman. However, isn’t it behaviour such as this that creates this twitter mob?

  6. Daniel says

    The solution is to publicly identify the participants in Twitter mobs. Once they start losing their day jobs, the appeal of manufacturing outrage will dissipate.

  7. Peter from Oz says

    There is no place for sanctimonious, self-righteous bullying in our institutions.
    Racism is only a problem if it fits that category. Leftism is a problem, because it almost always fits that category. We need mass sackings of leftists, just so the poor little dears can really feel how it is to be rebels.

    • Saturn Black says

      Yeah a good dose of the real world will sort them out. Once they get fired they’ll be free to live out their dreams of becoming full time activists. They can attack these big right wing guys at rallies and vent all their anger then have those dreams (and noses) shattered by one big punch to the face like that dumb Antifa girl in America.

      Then it will be back to mummy’s house where their room probably hasn’t changed in 10 years. After a few years of complaining mum will get so fed up that she’ll find them a job at Twitter censoring all the “hate speech” aka anything posted by a conservative.

      Thus all the conservatives will be kicked off Twitter and end up having to create their own platform that isn’t run by the leftist mobs.

      See, everyone’s a winner in a right wing utopia.

  8. C Young says

    This piece is superficial.

    The nature of the job is relevant here. Whether someone has made racist (or other stupid) tweets is largely irrelevant to their ability to direct a superhero movie.

    But those appointed to the editorial board of a newspaper are there to set its editorial direction. If the person in question is unable to set the editorial direction of their own mouth, they might just be the wrong person for the job.

    On a practical level, she’s compromised from the start and thus ineffective.

    Worse, this is part of a process by which the major authoritative news sources are being compromised by radical campaigners who don’t subscribe to their basic values. They don’t believe in neutrality or objectivity. They see them as constructs that protect the interests of the privileged.

    In fact, if we were to arrange the world population in order of suitability to join a major editorial board, progressive activists who don’t believe in factuality would occupy the very end of the queue.

    This type of appointment helps to deprive the world of effective neutral arbiters of factuality. This is the last thing we need in the current environment.

  9. ga gamba says

    … then everyone with something to lose is just going to stop tweeting.

    You identified the solution. Pretty cool.

  10. A good example of how people should ignore Twitter mobs is the trans activist campaign against Mumsnet. Activists have been targeting companies that advertise on the site because it allows a fairly free discussion of the impact self-ID will have on women’s spaces. The companies really have to ask themselves, who are we going to listen to? 12,000,000 potential consumers or very loud mob who don’t buy our products anyway because they will never give birth?

  11. TarsTarkas says

    The rage will continue as long as there are people and firms who aren’t ever-evolvingly 100% ‘woke’. In otherwords, forever. Fire-eaters must eat fire even if they have to kindle it themselves (Asimov).

  12. Jack Danzey says

    This is a good article. I do have one problem, however. The idea that nobody should be fired over a tweet is perhaps a little too extreme of a position. Let us say that someone tweets “gas all the Jews. Yes, I am serious; we need to wipe them all out.” Would this be grounds for a firing? Maybe not, but I certainly wouldn’t object too much if someone did in fact get fired for it. There is no context in which the aforementioned tweet makes sense. In addition, it is not a joke, and it is made clear that it is not.

    Let us say that we agree that the above tweet is legitimate grounds for firing someone. Okay, so there are some reasons for doing so; what are they? Well, let’s say jokes are all okay, no matter how bad. The whole point of a joke is to offend and shock and say things that others don’t. Once we get into the business of deciding which jokes are okay and which are not we are going down a road we shouldn’t. The above tweet is clearly and unmistakably not a joke.

    Okay, how about insults and other similar mean things? Well that is pretty subjective and some people are more thin skinned than others. The standard would likely fall down to the most sensitive people because the only way we could judge that the tweet was too mean would be if people complained, and the thin skinned people will just about always complain.

    How about calls for genocide? Again, I can see a case for letting even this slide by, but I can certainly see why a business would fire someone for such a thing. The above tweet falls under this category.

    How about this? “#cancelwhitepeople. That sounds like borderline genocide to me. I get how it just doesn’t have the same effect when it is white people, even though it should. #cancelblackpeople. Read that, and ask yourself what that seems to imply. Does that mean that the person should be fired? Well, I am pretty libertarian so I am not into the idea of forcing people to do anything, but I sure wouldn’t want to have any association with the kind of piece of shit that would write such a thing.

    • codadmin says

      It’s a disgraceful article that attempts to justify, as you rightly point out, genocidal hate against white people.

  13. Sylv says

    If you’ve seen a news room in the last ten years, you’ll have noticed that there are a lot fewer reporters than there once were, doing a lot less investigative reporting and a lot more “generating content.” The easiest way to do this is to scroll through the feed in the morning, see what’s trending, and offer your take. Initially, this was a reliable way to inject content into the social media churn, although less so over time as competitors adopted the same tactics and the big social media platforms adjusted their models.

    This has produced a pronounced hall of mirrors effect as news coverage changed into coverage of the coverage of the coverage, who tweeted what about whose tweet about what. The kind of news that gets shared across social media platforms is increasingly this sort of nothing sandwich, which now comprises the bulk of the public’s media diet.

    The modern version of gossip tabloids is a self-mobilizing mob that leverages that gossip to pressure companies into firing people. The public enjoys playing along because it’s perhaps the only power that they can reliably wield without looking up from their phones.

  14. codadmin says

    The only difference between the fascist left and fascist right is who they hate and who they blame.

  15. This article oozes with insincerity and false equivocation. I know for a fact that Twitter is actively suppressing the spread of conservative-leaning ideas through control of their platform. People need to wake up and realize that these social media companies have been weaponized against the right, and its working!

  16. Farris says

    Social media has caused us to relive the time of the Salem witch trials. Today rather than be called a “heretic” or a “witch” the accusers prefer “racists”, “sexists”, “homophobes”, ect… The mere charge is sufficient to infer guilt, regardless of actual evidence, because the accusation is made by those who claim the moral high ground. The accusers would have us believe they never make an off color joke or utter a remark they regret. I guess we could call them “Puritans”. This is why the right often rejoices when the curtain is pulled back on self righteous lefties. These Puritans desire to police language and sexual interactions. Furthermore the Puritans claim to know what’s in the hearts and minds of the condemned. They demonstrate how difficult tyranny is to resist. Every tyrant rather as an individual or corporate deludes themselves into believing they are only acting for the public good. They are arbiters of morality. One quickly learns that any thought, action or publication that threatens the Puritan’s power is by definition immoral and heretical. Dogma is not to be debated or made sport of.

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  18. In the article’s very first sentence, the author casually minimizes Jeong’s tweets by calling them “sarcastic.” By showing his left-wing cards, it was easy to predict the viewpoint of the rest of the article.

  19. The one tweet that caused concern was the one tweet that was perfectly harmless.
    I refer, of course, to Roseanne’s.
    And for this harmless tweet the author proposed “rehab”.
    Not sure what he meant by rehab, but it has a somewhat ominous ring to it.
    That Roseanne’s factually correct description caused uproar, and within minutes was branded as racist, and within hours led to her dismissal shows just how far down the rabbit hole we have traveled.

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  22. I think I read it on here but Twitter and Facebook give the wrong type of people a voice. The type who would normally sit at home and not make a fuss now have a powerful platform where they can demand for someone’s job.

    I won’t deny I’ve not posted some tweets because I can’t afford to lose my job.

    This also makes me think of the ones in Charlottesville who lost their jobs. Man did I get slammed for saying back then for saying they shouldn’t lose their jobs.

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