There is something wrong at the heart of Twitter.
Just ask Sarah Jeong. The tech journalist was recently announced as the New York Times’ newest editorial board member. No sooner had the news gone out than internet users on the right exhumed some of her long-buried tweets and accused her of racism against white people. In reality, Jeong’s tweets were flippant remarks mimicking and mocking white people who’d falsely claimed discrimination. She apologized, nonetheless. “I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again,” she wrote in a statement. Seeing the controversy as entirely manufactured, the Times stood by its new hire.
Or ask James Gunn. Gunn was slated to direct the next installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise when alt-right provocateur Mike Cernovich (who also promoted the “pizzagate” conspiracy) posted some of Gunn’s old tweets. Years ago, Gunn had made objectively offensive jokes about pedophilia and child molestation. Amidst the furor, Gunn admitted that his comments were vile and intentionally provocative, and he apologized for them. “I am very, very different than I was a few years ago,” he said in a statement. His employer took a different route than the Times, however. Disney Films fired Gunn, over the protestations of Guardians cast members.
By now, these stories (i.e. getting “milkshake duck”-ed) come as little surprise to anyone who spends much time online. For years, celebrities, journalists, politicians — and of course, regular users — have been publicly and often mercilessly shamed for things their past selves have posted online.
It’s so common that the Times actually went through nearly the exact same thing earlier this year, when tech journalist Quinn Norton was shamed for racist and homophobic remarks she made years ago. The Times agreed with Norton’s critics, and the two parties agreed to go their separate ways. There was a key difference between the Jeong case and Norton’s, of course: the validity of the complaints. As Amanda Hess wrote this past weekend at the New York Times Magazine, “there are those who lack institutional power because of discrimination, and then there are those who are kept out of polite society because they are amoral ghouls. The true nature of a mob becomes a lot clearer once you differentiate between the two.”
By now, these stories come as little surprise to anyone who spends much time online.
At the Washington Post, Megan McArdle (no stranger to saying controversial things) suggested introducing a “statute of limitations” on tweets, to prevent the amoral ghouls from consuming their prey. Others, like Emily Dreyfuss at Wired, have opted for a wholesale deletion strategy, eliminating a searchable past and thereby (mostly) protecting themselves from anyone searching for material — ghoulish or not.