Twitter is the new Colosseum
In ancient times, Roman emperors would mount circuses in the Colosseum, featuring the crowd-pleasing spectacle of lions killing Christians.
Today we are more civilized: no emperors, Colosseums or lions. Which isn’t to say we’ve lost our taste for mobbing and bloodletting. It’s just that now we have Twitter. Twitter is a digital Colosseum. Activists are the emperors. Viral campaigns are the lions. Personal shaming and professional death are the blood and gore.
And the new Christians?
Today’s scapegoats have only to meet one criterion: that they say or do something, in public or (what they assume to be) private, seriously or in jest, that can be interpreted as offensive to politically correct social victim groups. The offending remark or photo or overheard conversation is then publicized on social media by activists in the official victim community and their supporters, and the shaming frenzy begins. Few victims survive the onslaught. Which encourages more mobbing, more fear and more appeasement.
The case of Justine Sacco, for example, covered in a recent excerpt from a book by Jon Ronson, printed in the New York Times Magazine, describes the process in excruciating detail. In 2013, en route to a visit with family in South Africa, Sacco, a 30-year old senior director of corporate communications at media/internet company IAC, began tweeting cheeky aperçus to her 170 followers, such as: “Weird German dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant”: and at Heathrow: “Chilly – cucumber sandwiches – bad teeth. Back in London!” And then, fatefully, before taking off for Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Offensive? You bet. The appropriate remedy in a free-speech society? Admonitions from her followers, like, “Hey Justine, that was uncool. Whites get AIDS too.” What actually happened? Sacco boarded her plane, oblivious to the world for 11 hours, arrived in Cape Town, turned on her phone and found herself plunged into a social piranha tank as the #1 worldwide trend on Twitter. Comments revealed the bloodlust and voyeurism at the heart of Twitter mobbing: “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.” She was indeed fired, but that almost seems like a sidebar to the horrific, prolonged shame and humiliation she and her family endured.
Closer to home, less dramatic but as yet unresolved, is the case of popular conservative radio host Andrew Lawton of London, Ontario’s AM980 (who has very competently interviewed me a number of times). On Feb. 2 Andrew remarked on Facebook that a “push poll” was trying to paint Londoners as homophobic. He then posted the annual number of sexual-orientation crimes in Canada: 185, followed by the catalytic remark: “Number of HIV/AIDS infections from men having sex with men in Canada per year: 1450 – Who is the real enemy?” The question was interpreted as homophobic — it was at the least ill-considered — and even though Andrew published a clarifying statement of regret on Feb. 3, a Twitter campaign sprang into action, hashtagged #fireandrewlawton.
On Feb. 4 Andrew was suspended “for at least the rest of [the] week.” Not good enough! Mobbers descended on a show sponsor, which refused the bait (to their credit). Pressure continued. It was announced that Andrew was now suspended until Feb. 23. A Facebook counter-campaign by Andrew’s supporters was launched: “Bring back Andrew Lawton,” followed by a counter-counter Facebook page, “Keep Lawton off the air.” Petitions on both sides were mounted. One supporter sent repeated emails to station manager, Nathan Smith, asking for a link to the “social media policies” and “broadcast standards” that Smith had mentioned in his statement of suspension. He had no response. I asked Mr. Smith for an interview. No response.
As recent acts of terrorism have reminded us, freedom of speech, especially on one’s own time and in one’s own social space, must include the freedom to voice an unpalatable opinion or mock the sacred cows of others without disproportionate punishment. Feeding blood to the mob only excites its lust. The beast must be ignored, starved into rational behaviour. If it isn’t, we cannot complain when it’s our blood it bays for. Barbara Kay is a columnist for Canada's National Post, where this article was first published. It is reproduced here with permission. THIS JUST IN: In response to my media query yesterday, Corus has informed me that Andrew will be back on the air Feb. 23. A bittersweet victory for those who felt no suspension was necessary – but we’ll take it.
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