In February 2018, only a few months before Sarah Jeong’s appointment to the New York Times editorial board, the paper had announced another recruitment, that of a 44-year-old tech journalist called Quinn Norton. The Internet immediately went to work, and — as they later would with Sarah Jeong — analyzed her Twitter feed. Again they found tweets that were, in the language of social-justice campaigners, “not good.” Among the things that were found were a number of tweets from 2013 in which Norton had used the word “fag.” As in “Look, fag” and (on one occasion with another Twitter user with whom she was rowing) “you s*** eating, hypersensitive little crybaby fag.” On another occasion — back in 2009 — Norton was found to have used the most unacceptable word of all. In 2009, in a row with another Twitter user, she had replied, “If God had meant a n***** to talk to our schoolchildren, He would have would have [sic] made him president. Oh, but wait . . . Um.” Just seven hours after the New York Times had announced its new hire, it backpedaled by saying Norton would not in fact be joining the paper.
In a subsequent piece in The Atlantic Norton explained what she thought had happened. She acknowledged that many things she had written and tweeted in the past had been ignorant and embarrassing. She also explained what it felt like to, in her words, have a “doppelganger” version of herself swiftly emerge online. In common with other people who had been the subject of online shaming this version of her that people were railing against was not “who she was” but a hideous, simplified, out-of-context version of tiny parts of herself.
She explained that she believed herself to have been the victim of what she referred to as “context collapse.” This is another term for the collapse of the divide between private and public language, where a conversation meant for an in-group becomes known to an out-group with no knowledge of the original context of the discussion. Norton said that her use of the “n” word had been in the context of an online row in which she was “in support of [President] Obama.” Since Norton had been in friendly as well as unfriendly rows with various white racists it was possible that she was using vile language to mirror back at someone who was also using vile language. Elsewhere her engagement with “Anons” (members of the activist collective “Anonymous”) was explained to be the reason for her use of the word “fags.” Such language gets used in such groups, but clearly does not transfer well to the world of the New York Times. The two worlds met, Norton was history there, and the world stampeded on.
But these cases deserve some reflection. First because cases like Norton’s and Jeong’s invite the question: “What is a fair representation of a person in the Internet age?” What is a fair way to describe somebody? Norton, for instance, might henceforth be summed up as “The racist, homophobic tech journalist fired by the New York Times.” She might think a fairer version of her life would be “Writer and mother.” But then Jeong presumably does not think of herself as a racist either. So who gets to call it? If it is the mob then we are in trouble.
Indeed, only the worst version of someone’s life contains the information that makes the Internet stop and look. It is pure gold for a network addicted to shaming and schadenfreude. We all know the glee at watching someone fall from grace; the righteous feeling that can come with joining in the punishment of a transgressor. Even (perhaps especially) if their transgression is for a sin we ourselves have committed. And we know from the work of the anthropologist and philosopher René Girard of the societal release that can come from the identification of such a scapegoat. So the inclination is to go for the account of a life which is least understanding and least nuanced: most appalling and most appalled.
Here lies an additional quagmire. There is little enough recourse when old-school journalism tramples across someone’s life. But on the Internet there is not even a regulatory body to appeal to if your life has been raked over in this way. Thousands — perhaps millions — of people have been involved, and there is no mechanism to reach all of them and get them to admit that they raked over your life in an unfair manner. Nobody has the time, few people are deemed important enough. There are other people to move on to. And unlike the pool of people the old media might trample over, tech can pick on almost anyone on the planet and spin them around in the tornado. [. . .]
Until very recently a slip-up or error made even by a very famous person would be whittled away by time. There are some things so big that they will never be forgotten. Someone being tried in a courtroom or going to prison keeps that on their record. But living in a world where non-crimes have the same effect is especially deranging. What court can be appealed to? Especially when the nature of the crimes, or what constitutes a crime, can vary almost from day to day. What is the correct way to refer to somebody who is trans today? Did you use this word as a joke or an insult? How will what we are doing now look in 20 years? Who will be the next Joy Reid, held to account for the “wrong” view expressed at a time when everybody else was also expressing the “wrong” view? If we do not know the answer to these questions then we have to try to ensure that we can predict the crowd-turns not just of the next year but of the rest of our lives. Good luck with that.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt was adapted from Douglas Murray’s new book, The Madness of Crowds.