How Twitter and Facebook are weaponizing mob mentality
Pressure is building on social media sites to suppress "hate speech" and other unpleasantness. As a result, platforms that once promised open association and robust conversations are turning into snitch societies and mob-justice platforms.
The recent drama involving James Gunn provides a particular case in point. The director of the first two blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy films recently found himself booted from the third film by Disney for tweets he posted years ago about pedophilia, rape, 9/11, AIDS, and the Holocaust. Despite a series of apologies, he couldn't stave off a pink slip.
On Monday, Gunn's Guardians colleagues began a campaign to get him rehired. After waiting more than a week to let the outrage simmer down, most of the principal cast sent out a joint statement asking for Gunn's reinstatement. "There is little due process in the court of public opinion. James is likely not the last good person to be put on trial," they declare, expressing hope that "Americans from across the political spectrum can ease up on the character assassination and stop weaponizing mob mentality."
Two months ago, though, Gunn didn't mind weaponizing the mob for his own purposes. He demanded that ABC fire Roseanne Barr after her offensive remarks about Valerie Jarrett, remarks for which Barr apologized repeatedly. "I wish some of these so-called defenders of liberty would start to understand what freedom of speech is AND isn't," Gunn lamented in a tweet he later deleted. "Roseanne is allowed to say whatever she wants. It doesn't mean @ABCNetwork needs to continue funding her show if her words are considered abhorrent." ABC is, of course, owned by Disney — the same company that makes the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and decided not to fund Gunn after his own "abhorrent" words.
This cycle of mining old tweets and Facebook posts to get people fired or marginalized has begun to dominate social media. It is fueled in part by a reliance on user feedback to determine how the platforms treat their customers. Twitter, for instance, defended itself recently from accusations by Vice News of "shadow banning" by revealing that it deprioritizes search results for certain users based on how many other users block and/or mute them. In other words, Twitter has set up incentives for hecklers' vetoes to determine who does and does not get full participation on their platform — weaponizing mob mentality even further.
Twitter is doubling down on this approach, too. On the same day Gunn's colleagues gamely campaigned for his rehabilitation, Twitter announced it would outsource the moderation of speech on its platform. The new effort aims to "bridg[e] gaps between communities on Twitter" by having third parties break up "echo chambers" and "uncivil discourse" via algorithm-based reporting. But this leaves users with even less confidence in the platform, as ever more arbitrary methods get put in place to punish those who simply want to have conversations and debates.
Facebook has attempted to thread the needle more carefully on free speech concerns, but has similar issues. After suspending conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones but not his organization from posting privileges, Jones' political opponents buried Mark Zuckerberg in an avalanche of criticism. On the other end of the spectrum, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused Facebook of violating Jones' First Amendment rights, even though Facebook is a private platform, and it is only Jones' access to a certain kind of publishing that has been infringed upon, not his right to free speech.
These attempts to put open speech and association within the boundaries of non-offensiveness has backfired badly for both companies. Both suffered major setbacks on Wall Street, losing 20 percent of their stock price in a single day of trading, as investors have been spooked by falling engagement and enrollment numbers. Investors are revolting against the emergence of thought-police policies attempting to silence those who offer heterodox opinions.
The answer, however, is not government intervention or users policing one another. Twitter in particular has been using the latter method for the last few years, and the quality of discourse has gotten worse than ever. Instead of having conversations and debates, activists on all sides engage for retribution by digging up old tweets even from the most polite of users, resulting in suspensions over disagreements recast as "hate."
Instead of these interventions on behalf of pseudotolerance, these platforms should try to defend the principles on which they are based, and exercise actual tolerance. Lay out specific rules about what can and can't be posted, and then enforce them directly rather than allow mobs to form and force suspensions and shadow bans. Let people form their own judgments about associations and arguments. Rather than "safe spaces," allow for real speech and debate and force people to defend their ideas. The follow, block, and mute functions on social media allow users to set their own environments, so why not trust them to do so wisely?
We don't need a ruling body to make those decisions, nor do we need to keep handing torches and pitchforks to mobs to impose "healthy conversations" on us. Until social media platforms put their consumers in control, they will continue to see both their users and their investors walk away.