When ‘Boundary Policing’ Becomes Intimidation: How the Media Protect Their Turf

The cover of The New York Times’ on a newsstand in New York, May 24, 2020 (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
For peddlers of ideology, free inquiry is a business risk — hence the obsession with stamping out samizdat.

Two weeks ago, the author of the Slate Star Codex (SSC) blog deleted its archive after a New York Times reporter threatened to leak his personal information in a story. The blogger, a psychiatrist who goes by “Scott Alexander” (his first and middle names), says he went offline out of concern for his personal safety and that of his psychiatric patients. In an email, Alexander told me he had not heard from the Times since deleting his blog on June 23.

Slate Star Codex is part of the canon of the “rationalist” community — a group of academics and technologists who aim to maximize the accuracy of their beliefs by testing them using Bayesian methods. The rationalist emphasis on unbiased empirical analysis often leads them into dangerous territory: In a 2015 post on feminism, Alexander argued that the gender earnings gap is the result of women’s professional and educational choices, rather than misogyny; elsewhere, he has suggested that the British Empire had positive effects on its colonial subjects and that certain ethnic groups may have inherently higher IQs than others.

The attempted “doxxing” of Scott Alexander is only the latest attempt by the mainstream media to proscribe the limits of public discourse. Because Alexander does not rely on publishers or advertisers, he can grapple with questions that academics and popular writers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But Times tech correspondent Cade Metz seemed to have found a way around this — not only by threatening to print Alexander’s name but also by writing a story about “the overlap between SSC and the Y Combinator/Andreessen-Horowitz crowd,” a reference to two prominent venture-capital firms. But wait: Neither Y Combinator (YC) nor Andreessen-Horowitz (a16z) funds or otherwise supports Slate Star Codex. Alexander says that while YC founder Paul Graham reads his blog, he “cannot remember ever meeting or conversing with anyone” affiliated with YC. And outside of self-help clickbait (“Nine Books Warren Buffett Thinks You Should Read This Year”), the reading habits of businesspeople rarely make headlines.

What, then, is the “overlap” to which Metz refers? Like Alexander, Graham and Marc Andreessen make the mistake of deviating from the Times bestseller list and reading unapproved literature. As technologists with money on the line, they are subject to objective standards of accuracy in their thinking and work. It is not enough for them to be popular; they have to be correct. Unsurprisingly, they sometimes run afoul of polite orthodoxy. The “overlap” stems from their shared independence.

Graham, an early investor in Airbnb, Stripe, and Dropbox, has been through the wringer before. In a 2013 Atlantic article titled “Paul Graham Proves Sexism in Tech Is Still a Problem,” he was tarred and feathered for pointing out that young women, on the whole, tend to be less interested than young men in computer science. Never mind that Graham suggested reforming primary-school curricula to encourage more women to go into technology. By pointing out an observable fact that cut against the media narrative on sexism in Silicon Valley, he undermined the legitimacy of journalists whose work depends on the menace of discrimination. They were not going to let him get away with it.

Andreessen, too, has faced accusations of thought crime. In 2018, he recommended books by conservatives Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson to his Twitter followers, recommendations that journalist Eoin Higgins called the “first cogent hint of his rightward tilt.” In a piece for The Outline, Higgins reported that Andreessen had favorited posts by conservatives and members of the “intellectual dark web.” Andreessen, a one-time Democrat who switched parties to support Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, was deemed “alt-right adjacent.”

Journalists used to be news brokers, acting as middlemen between those who created the news (politicians, businesspeople, etc.) and those who consumed it. Now that social media have cut out the middleman, they’ve pivoted to selling narratives. The Times gained subscribers after Trump’s 2016 victory not because of an increase in demand for news stories, but because of an increase in demand for the particular packaging of news stories offered by the Gray Lady.

For peddlers of ideology, free inquiry is a business risk. Much like the hotel industry’s attacks on Airbnb, media attacks on Graham served to protect their territory. As an added bonus, they also generated clicks. Controversy sells, and “if you’re not too scrupulous, you invent controversies, or magnify small ones,” as Graham tells me in an email.

When you sell an ideology, you have to protect it. Hence the journalistic obsession with samizdat.

The challenge for the censorious media is that, for the most part, technologists do not rely on legacy institutions for money or status. In the uber-competitive tech industry, the best products tend to win out irrespective of who’s behind them. Graham says that hostile coverage “distracts and demoralizes founders a bit,” but he doubts that “it cuts the average founder’s productivity more than a few percent. The whole phenomenon is a sideshow.” That is why journalists harbor more-potent hostility towards venture capitalists than towards bank or oil CEOs, whose businesses rely at least partially on the imprimatur of the political and pundit class.

For his part, Alexander does not ascribe nefarious motives to Metz. “I think he was honestly trying to write a fair piece about SSC, but didn’t realize the real name thing was going to be a problem until it was too late.” It is unclear whether Alexander says this sincerely or as a hostage trying to negotiate his release.

In any event, while a “doxxing” would cause Alexander considerable personal harm, it would do less damage to the intellectual community that exists on SSC and other blogs. Alexander can always write under a different pseudonym, and even if his writing disappears, other unorthodox thinkers will fill the void. Like the tech industry, the blogosphere is decentralized: Removing one node cannot bring down the system as a whole.

As the legacy media double down on intellectual conformity, pseudonymous blogs, encrypted chats and anonymous corners of Twitter are becoming the last havens of open debate. Fearing the ire of the mob, most prominent thinkers have intellectually neutered themselves. A discord server offers more intellectual rigor to the curious reader than do newspaper opinion pages, which now air only the most predictable, inoffensive takes. While the strategy of journalism-as-intimidation may silence the occasional investor or blogger, it will eventually pass its culminating point of success.


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