Longtime friend and colleague Boaz Barak sent me a fascinating New York Times Magazine article that profiles people who lost their jobs or otherwise had their lives ruined, because of a single remark that then got amplified a trillionfold in importance by social media. (The author, Jon Ronson, also has a forthcoming book on the topic.) The article opens with Justine Sacco: a woman who, about to board a flight to Cape Town, tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
To the few friends who read Sacco’s Twitter feed, it would’ve been obvious that she was trying to mock the belief of many well-off white people that they live in a bubble, insulated from the problems of the Third World; she wasn’t actually mocking black Africans who suffer from AIDS. In a just world, maybe Sacco deserved someone to take her aside and quietly explain that her tweet might be read the wrong way, that she should be more careful next time. Instead, by the time she landed in Cape Town, she learned that she’d become the #1 worldwide Twitter trend and a global symbol of racism. She lost her career, she lost her entire previous life, and tens of thousands of people expressed glee about it. The article rather heartbreakingly describes Sacco’s attempts to start over.
There are many more stories like the above. Some I’d already heard about: the father of three who lost his job after he whispered a silly joke involving “dongles” to the person next to him at a conference, whereupon Adria Richards, a woman in front of him, snapped his photo and posted it to social media, to make an example of him as a sexist pig. (Afterwards, a counter-reaction formed, which successfully got Richards fired from her job: justice??) Other stories I hadn’t heard.
Reading this article made it clear to me just how easily I got off, in my own recent brush with the online shaming-mobs. Yes, I made the ‘mistake’ of writing too openly about my experiences as a nerdy male teenager, and the impact that one specific aspect of feminist thought (not all of feminism!) had had on me. Within the context of the conversation that a few nerdy men and women were having on this blog, my opening up led to exactly the results I was hoping for: readers thoughtfully sharing their own experiences, a meaningful exchange of ideas, even (dare I say it?) glimmers of understanding and empathy.
Alas, once the comment was wrested from its original setting into the clickbait bazaar, the story became “MIT professor explains: the real oppression is having to learn to talk to women” (the title of Amanda Marcotte’s hit-piece, something even some in Marcotte’s ideological camp called sickeningly cruel). My photo was on the front page of Salon, next to the headline “The plight of the bitter nerd.” I was subjected to hostile psychoanalysis not once but twice on ‘Dr. Nerdlove,’ a nerd-bashing site whose very name drips with irony, rather like the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’ There were tweets and blog comments that urged MIT to fire me, that compared me to a mass-murderer, and that “deduced” (from first principles!) all the ways in which my parents screwed up in raising me and my female students cower in fear of me. And yes, when you Google me, this affair now more-or-less overshadows everything else I’ve done in my life.
But then … there were also hundreds of men and women who rose to my defense, and they were heavily concentrated among the people I most admire and respect. My supporters ranged from the actual female students who took my classes or worked with me or who I encouraged in their careers, from whom there was only kindness, not a single negative word; to the shy nerds who thanked me for being one of the only people to acknowledge their reality; to the lesbians and bisexual women who told me my experience also resonated with them; to the female friends and colleagues who sent me notes urging me to ignore the nonsense. In the end, not only have I not lost any friends over this, I’ve gained new ones, and I’ve learned new sides of the friends I had.
Oh, and I didn’t get any death threats: I guess that’s good! (Once in my life I did get death threats—graphic, explicit threats, about which I had to contact the police—but it was because I refused to publicize someone’s P=NP proof.)
Since I was away from campus when this blew up, I did feel some fear about the professional backlash that would await me on my return. Would my office be vandalized? Would activist groups be protesting my classes? Would MIT police be there to escort me from campus?
Well, you want to know what happened instead? Students and colleagues have stopped me in the hall, or come by my office, just to say they support me. My class has record enrollment this term. I was invited to participate in MIT’s Diversity Summit, since the organizers felt it would mean a lot to the students to see someone there who had opened up about diversity issues in STEM in such a powerful way. (I regretfully had to decline, since the summit conflicted with a trip to Stanford.) And an MIT graduate women’s reading group invited me for a dinner discussion (at my suggestion, Laurie Penny participated as well). Imagine that: not only are MIT’s women’s groups not picketing me, they’re inviting me over for dinner! Is there any better answer to the claim, urged on me by some of my overzealous supporters, that the bile of Amanda Marcotte represents all of feminism these days?
Speaking of which, I met Laurie Penny for coffee last month, and she and I quickly hit it off. We’ve even agreed to write a joint blog post about our advice for shy nerds. (In my What I Believe post, I had promised a post of advice for shy female nerds—but at Laurie’s urging, we’re broadening the focus to shy nerds of both sexes.) Even though Laurie’s essay is the thing that brought me to the attention of the Twitter-mobs (which wasn’t Laurie’s intent!), and even though I disagreed with several points in her essay, I knew on reading it that Laurie was someone I’d enjoy talking to. Unlike so much writing by online social justice activists, which tends to be encrusted with the specialized technical terms of that field—you know, terms like “asshat,” “shitlord,” “douchecanoe,” and “precious feefees of entitled white dudes”—Laurie’s prose shone with humanity and vulnerability: her own, which she freely shared, and mine, which she generously acknowledged.
Overall, the response to my comment has never made me happier or more grateful to be part of the STEM community (I never liked the bureaucratic acronym “STEM,” but fine, I’ll own it). To many outsiders, we STEM nerds are a sorry lot: we’re “sperglords” (yes, slurs are fine, as long as they’re directed against the right targets!) who might be competent in certain narrow domains, but who lack empathy and emotional depth, and are basically narcissistic children. Yet somehow when the chips were down, it’s my fellow STEM nerds, and people who hang out with STEM nerds a lot, who showed me far more empathy and compassion than many of the “normals” did. So if STEM nerds are psychologically broken, then I say: may I surround myself, for the rest of my life, with men and women who are psychologically broken like I am. May I raise Lily, and any future children I have, to be as psychologically broken as they can be. And may I stay as far as possible from anyone who’s too well-adjusted.
I reserve my ultimate gratitude for the many women in STEM, friends and strangers alike, who sent me messages of support these past two months. I’m not ashamed to say it: witnessing how so many STEM women stood up for me has made me want to stand up for them, even more than I did before. If they’re not called on often enough in class, I’ll call on them more. If they’re subtly discouraged from careers in science, I’ll blatantly encourage them back. If they’re sexually harassed, I’ll confront their harassers myself (well, if asked to). I will listen to them, and I will try to improve.
Is it selfish that I want to help female STEM nerds partly because they helped me? Here’s the thing: one of my deepest moral beliefs is in the obligation to fight for those among the disadvantaged who don’t despise you, and who wouldn’t gladly rid the planet of everyone like you if they could. (As I’ve written before, on issue after issue, this belief makes me a left-winger by American standards, and a right-winger by academic ones.) In the present context, I’d say I have a massive moral obligation toward female STEM nerds and toward Laurie Penny’s version of feminism, and none at all toward Marcotte’s version.
All this is just to say that I’m unbelievably lucky—privileged (!)—to have had so many at MIT and elsewhere willing to stand up for me, and to have reached in a stage in life where I’m strong enough to say what I think and to weather anything the Internet says back. What worries me is that others, more vulnerable, didn’t and won’t have it as easy when the Twitter hate-machine turns its barrel on them. So in the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss the problem of what to do about social-media shaming campaigns that aim to, and do, destroy the lives of individuals. I’m convinced that this is a phenomenon that’s only going to get more and more common: something sprung on us faster than our social norms have evolved to deal with it. And it would be nice if we could solve it without having to wait for a few high-profile suicides.
But first, let me address a few obvious questions about why this problem is even a problem at all.
Isn’t social shaming as old as society itself—and permanent records of the shaming as old as print media?
Yes, but there’s also something fundamentally new about the problem of the Twitter-mobs. Before, it would take someone—say, a newspaper editor—to make a conscious decision to the effect, “this comment is worth destroying someone’s life over.” Today, there might be such an individual, but it’s also possible for lives to be destroyed in a decentralized, distributed fashion, with thousands of Twitterers collaborating to push a non-story past the point of no return. And among the people who “break” the story, not one has to intend to ruin the victim’s life, or accept responsibility for it afterward: after all, each one made the story only ε bigger than it already was. (Incidentally, this is one reason why I haven’t gotten a Twitter account: while it has many worthwhile uses, it’s also a medium that might as well have been designed for mobs, for ganging up, for status-seeking among allies stripped of rational arguments. It’s like the world’s biggest high school.)
Don’t some targets of online shaming campaigns, y’know, deserve it?
Of course! Some are genuine racists or misogynists or homophobes, who once would’ve been able to inflict hatred their entire lives without consequence, and were only brought down thanks to social media. The trouble is, the participants in online shaming campaigns will always think they’re meting out righteous justice, whether they are or aren’t. But there’s an excellent reason why we’ve learned in modern societies not to avenge even the worst crimes via lynch mobs. There’s a reason why we have trials and lawyers and the opportunity for the accused to show their innocence.
Some might say that no safeguards are possible or necessary here, since we’re not talking about state violence, just individuals exercising their free speech right to vilify someone, demand their firing, that sort of thing. Yet in today’s world, trial-by-Internet can be more consequential than the old kind of trial: would you rather spend a year in jail, but then be free to move to another town where no one knew about it, or have your Google search results tarnished with lurid accusations (let’s say, that you molested children) for the rest of your life—to have that forever prevent you from getting a job or a relationship, and have no way to correct the record? With trial by Twitter, there’s no presumption of innocence, no requirement to prove that any other party was harmed, just the law of the schoolyard.
Whether shaming is justified in a particular case is a complicated question, but for whatever it’s worth, here are a few of the questions I would ask:
- Did the person express a wish for anyone (or any group of people) to come to harm, or for anyone’s rights to be infringed?
- Did the person express glee or mockery about anyone else’s suffering?
- Did the person perpetrate a grievous factual falsehood—like, something one could prove was a falsehood in a court of law?
- Did the person violate anyone else’s confidence?
- How much does the speaker’s identity matter? If it had been a man rather than a woman (or vice versa) saying parallel things, would we have taken equal offense?
- Does the comment have what obscenity law calls “redeeming social value”? E.g., does it express an unusual viewpoint, or lead to an interesting discussion?
Of course, even in those cases where shaming campaigns are justified, they’ll sometimes be unproductive and ill-advised.
Aren’t society’s most powerful fair targets for public criticism, even mocking or vicious criticism?
Of course. Few would claim, for example, that we have an ethical obligation to ease up on Todd Akin over his “legitimate rape” remarks, since all the rage might give Akin an anxiety attack. Completely apart from the (de)merits of the remarks, we accept that, when you become (let’s say) an elected official, a CEO, or a university president, part of the bargain is that you no longer get to complain if people organize to express their hatred of you.
But what’s striking about the cases in the NYT article is that it’s not public figures being gleefully destroyed: just ordinary people who in most cases, made one ill-advised joke or tweet, no worse than countless things you or I have probably said in private among friends. The social justice warriors try to justify what would otherwise look like bullying by shifting attention away from individuals: sure, Justine Sacco might be a decent person, but she stands for the entire category of upper-middle-class, entitled white women, a powerful structural force against whom the underclass is engaged in a righteous struggle. Like in a war, the enemy must be fought by any means necessary, even if it means picking off one hapless enemy foot-soldier to make an example to the rest. And anyway, why do you care more about this one professional white woman, than about the millions of victims of racism? Is it because you’re a racist yourself?
I find this line of thinking repugnant. For it perverts worthy struggles for social equality into something callous and inhuman, and thereby undermines the struggles themselves. It seems to me to have roughly the same relation to real human rights activism as the Inquisition did to the ethical teachings of Jesus. It’s also repugnant because of its massive chilling effect: watching a few shaming campaigns is enough to make even the most well-intentioned writer want to hide behind a pseudonym, or only offer those ideas and experiences that are sure to win approval. And the chilling effect is not some accidental byproduct; it’s the goal. This negates what, for me, is a large part of the promise of the Internet: that if people from all walks of life can just communicate openly, everything made common knowledge, nothing whispered or secondhand, then all the well-intentioned people will eventually come to understand each other.
If I’m right that online shaming of decent people is a real problem that’s only going to get worse, what’s the solution? Let’s examine five possibilities.
(1) Libel law. For generations, libel has been recognized as one of the rare types of speech that even a liberal, democratic society can legitimately censor (along with fraud, incitement to imminent violence, national secrets, child porn, and a few others). That libel is illegal reflects a realistic understanding of the importance of reputation: if, for example, CNN falsely reports that you raped your children, then it doesn’t really matter if MSNBC later corrects the record; your life as you knew it is done.
The trouble is, it’s not clear how to apply libel law in the age of social media. In the cases we’re talking about, an innocent person’s life gets ruined because of the collective effect of thousands of people piling on to make nasty comments, and it’s neither possible nor desirable to prosecute all of them. Furthermore, in many cases the problem is not that the shamers said anything untrue: rather, it’s that they “merely” took something true and spitefully misunderstood it, or blew it wildly, viciously, astronomically out of proportion. I don’t see any legal remedies here.
(2) “Shame the shamers.” Some people will say the only answer is to hit the shamers with their own weapons. If an overzealous activist gets an innocent jokester fired from his job, shame the activist until she’s fired from her job. If vigilantes post the jokester’s home address on the Internet with crosshairs overlaid, find the vigilantes’ home addresses and post those. It probably won’t surprise many people that I’m not a fan of this solution. For it only exacerbates the real problem: that of mob justice overwhelming reasoned debate. The most I can say in favor of vigilantism is this: you probably don’t get to complain about online shaming, if what you’re being shamed for is itself a shaming campaign that you prosecuted against a specific person.
(In a decade writing this blog, I can think of exactly one case where I engaged in what might be called a shaming campaign: namely, against the Bell’s inequality denier Joy Christian. Christian had provoked me over six years, not merely by being forehead-bangingly wrong about Bell’s theorem, but by insulting me and others when we tried to reason with him, and by demanding prize money from me because he had ‘proved’ that quantum computing was a fraud. Despite that, I still regret the shaming aspects of my Joy Christian posts, and will strive not to repeat them.)
(3) Technological solutions. We could try to change the functioning of the Internet, to make it harder to use it to ruin people’s lives. This, more-or-less, is what the European Court of Justice was going for, with its much-discussed recent ruling upholding a “right to be forgotten” (more precisely, a right for individuals to petition for embarrassing information about them to be de-listed from search engines). Alas, I fear that the Streisand effect, the Internet’s eternal memory, and the existence of different countries with different legal systems will forever make a mockery of all such technological solutions. But, OK, given that Google is constantly tweaking its ranking algorithms anyway, maybe it could give less weight to cruel attacks against non-public-figures? Or more weight (or even special placement) to sites explaining how the individual was cleared of the accusations? There might be scope for such things, but I have the strong feeling that they should be done, if at all, on a voluntary basis.
(4) Self-censorship. We could simply train people not to express any views online that might jeopardize their lives or careers, or at any rate, not to express those views under their real names. Many people I’ve talked to seem to favor this solution, but I can’t get behind it. For it effectively cedes to the most militant activists the right to decide what is or isn’t acceptable online discourse. It tells them that they can use social shame as a weapon to get what they want. When women are ridiculed for sharing stories of anorexia or being sexually assaulted or being discouraged from careers in science, it’s reprehensible to say that the solution is to teach those women to shut up about it. I not only agree with that but go further: privacy is sometimes important, but is also an overrated value. The respect that one rational person affords another for openly sharing the truth (or his or her understanding of the truth), in a spirit of sympathy and goodwill, is a higher value than privacy. And the Internet’s ability to foster that respect (sometimes!) is worth defending.
(5) Standing up. And so we come to the only solution that I can wholeheartedly stand behind. This is for people who abhor shaming campaigns to speak out, loudly, for those who are unfairly shamed.
At the nadir of my own Twitter episode, when it felt like my life was now finished, throw in the towel, the psychiatrist Scott Alexander wrote a 10,000-word essay in my defense, which also ranged controversially into numerous other issues. In a comment on his girlfriend Ozy’s blog, Alexander now says that he regrets aspects of Untitled (then again, it was already tagged “Things I Will Regret Writing” when he posted it!). In particular, he now feels that the piece was too broad in its critique of feminism. However, he then explains as follows what motivated him to write it:
Scott Aaronson is one of the nicest and most decent people in the world, who does nothing but try to expand human knowledge and support and mentor other people working on the same in a bunch of incredible ways. After a lot of prompting he exposed his deepest personal insecurities, something I as a psychiatrist have to really respect. Amanda Marcotte tried to use that to make mincemeat of him, casually, as if destroying him was barely worth her time. She did it on a site where she gets more pageviews than he ever will, among people who don’t know him, and probably stained his reputation among nonphysicists permanently. I know I have weird moral intuitions, but this is about as close to pure evil punching pure good in the face just because it can as I’ve ever seen in my life. It made me physically ill, and I mentioned the comments of the post that I lost a couple pounds pacing back and forth and shaking and not sleeping after I read it. That was the place I was writing from. And it was part of what seemed to me to be an obvious trend, and although “feminists vs. nerds” is a really crude way of framing it, I couldn’t think of a better one in that mental state and I couldn’t let it pass.
I had three reactions on reading this. First, if there is a Scott in this discussion who’s “pure good,” then it’s not I. Second, maybe the ultimate solution to the problem of online shaming mobs is to make a thousand copies of Alexander, and give each one a laptop with an Internet connection. But third, as long as we have only one of him, the rest of us have a lot of work cut out for us. I know, without having to ask, that the only real way I can thank Alexander for coming to my defense, is to use this blog to defend other people (anywhere on the ideological spectrum) who are attacked online for sharing in a spirit of honesty and goodwill. So if you encounter such a person, let me know—I’d much prefer that to letting me know about the latest attempt to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time with some analog contraption.
Unrelated Update: Since I started this post with Boaz Barak, let me also point to his recent blog post on why theoretical computer scientists care so much about asymptotics, despite understanding full well that the constants can overwhelm them in practice. Boaz articulates something that I’ve tried to say many times, but he’s crisper and more eloquent.
Update (Feb. 27): Since a couple people asked, I explain here what I see as the basic problems with the “Dr. Nerdlove” site.
Update (Feb. 28): In the middle of this affair, perhaps the one thing that depressed me the most was Salon‘s “Plight of the bitter nerd” headline. Random idiots on the Internet were one thing, but how could a “serious,” “respectable” magazine lend its legitimacy to such casual meanness? I’ve now figured out the answer: I used to read Salon sometimes in the late 90s and early 2000s, but not since then, and I simply hadn’t appreciated how far the magazine had descended into clickbait trash. There’s an amusing fake Salon Twitter account that skewers the magazine with made-up headlines (“Ten signs your cat might be racist” / “Nerd supremacism: should we have affirmative action to get cool people into engineering?”), mixed with actual Salon headlines, in such a way that it would be difficult to tell many of them apart were they not marked. (Indeed, someone should write a web app where you get quizzed to see how well you can distinguish them.) “The plight of the bitter nerd” is offered there as one of the real headlines that’s indistinguishable from the parodies.