Latest brouhaha over Sarah Jeong’s trolling reflects ominously not just on Twitter as a platform but on the state of online debate.
Can Twitter be saved? I’m not talking about last week’s social media stock price plunge. It’s the ritualization of Gamergate-style uproar and dishonest brigading that has me disillusioned with the platform.
I know soul-searching about Twitter is a bit of a journalistic trope at this point, since we all seem to be simultaneously enraptured with and disgusted by the constantly whirring news machine. But this week’s latest Twitter brouhaha seemed different—and reflects ominously not just on Twitter as a platform but on the state of online debate.
After Sarah Jeong was announced as a new member of the New York Times editorial board, right wing culture warriors surfaced what they deemed to be racist tweets by her. In July 2014, she tweeted, “Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men” and in November 2014, she tweeted, “#CancelWhitePeople.” Fox helpfully aggregated some of her controversial tweets.
Jeong tried to grab the reins of the controversy engulfing her by making a statement. She posted two tweets she had received from trolls. One read, “If I saw you. I would sock you right in your lesbian face.” She wrote, “I engaged in what I thought of at the time as counter-trolling. While it was intended as satire, I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers.” Meanwhile, the Times said it was standing by her but said her tweets “only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media.”
Is there anything else on Twitter besides vitriol?
Quinn Norton, the online thinker, distilled the problem presciently in 2013, when she wrote about context collapse. She explained, “One of the major problems with online space is that the wrong people see us hanging out with our friends and suddenly decontextualize our actions. This makes them wholly different and often unintended actions.” Norton, of course, had her offer to work at the Times rescinded earlier this year over her own controversial tweets.
In this case, it wasn’t that Jeong was bantering among friends online so much as that she had a more confrontational online persona than is tolerated at the Times. She wrote smart, in-depth articles and aggressive tweets. Anyone who read those tweets in conjunction with her work understood that this was deeply thoughtful person who wasn’t going to be bowed by trolls—not an actual anti-white bigot (if such a thing can exist). As a white person who has read her work and her tweets over the years, it’s hard to see how anyone could plausibly believe that she literally wanted to cancel white people.
The most charitable interpretation of the uproar then is that she pushed the bounds of civil discourse too far. At least some of the Twitter brigades going after her don’t seem to feel much obligation to be intellectually honest about their critique. One Twitter user quipped, “Welcome to the popular new game Is There A Sarah Jeong Critic Who Hasn’t Tweeted Something Racist?” That person dug up examples of Jeong’s critics who themselves had posted xenophobic tweets.
In 2014, Deadspin published a piece titled, “The Future of The Culture War Is Here, And It’s Gamergate.” It’s still worth a read. The piece argues that the media, understandably eager to be fair to all sides of an issue, tends to take all online criticism—including anonymous tweets—as coming in good faith and is therefore susceptible to being manipulated. “What we’re seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved.” -Bloomberg
An intellectually dishonest story about intellectually dishonesty? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the state of journalism today.
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