During the vitriolic 2016 presidential election, I found myself on the wrong end of an argument. I was trolled so badly I thought I was going to lose my job, possibly my life. Two years later, my heart is open to others who have been shamed on the internet. There’s enough of us to build an empathic army.
Because I will never forget what it was like to be defined by hashtags—and notes left at my home—I want to know what makes thoughtful neighbors turn against each other. My fantasy is to capture outrage, that ancient beast, and put it in a jar to study its Kryptonite.
I’m no angel. Before my trolling, I participated in a handful of online shamings. After the Sandy Hook shooting, I joined an online mob when a conservative writer wrote about arming teachers with guns. In partnership with peers, I called this female writer an idiot. When other people demanded her resignation from the publication, I thought we might be going too far, but I didn’t speak up. That’s how carelessly I treated the human being on the other side of the screen.
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson describes how Twitter, once the voice of the marginalized, monetizes humiliation. The angrier the audience, the longer users stay online to consume advertising. Once a shaming is underway, logic disappears. Participants can willfully misinterpret a comment and crowdsource punishment as a form of entertainment.
Recall Justine Sacco, who in 2013 posted to her 170 Twitter followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was an egregious joke. She claimed, though, that she said she was commenting on her white privilege, not boasting of bigotry. “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world,” Sacco told Ronson. “I was making fun of this bubble.” During her international flight, digital mobs pulled her apart. At least one person suggested someone rape her to see if she would get AIDS. Shortly after her tweet, she was fired from her job. “The powerful, crazy, cruel people were now us,” Ronson writes. “It felt like we were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.”
After my trolling, every Twitterstorm hit me so personally I deleted my Twitter account. If the Leader of the Free World violated the platform’s terms of service, I would resist by not participating. Since every news organization rehashes the day’s events through tweets, I can’t avoid the trashings of Colin Kaepernick for “taking a knee” or Melania Trump for wearing a Zara jacket with a tone-deaf slogan. Regardless of how you feel about Kaepernick or the First Lady, type their names into Twitter’s search bar and see what racist and misogynistic garbage pops up on your screen. Even Olympic athletes get scorned—after representing our country while breaking barriers of race and sexual orientation. How did mobs against gymnast Gabby Douglas and figure skater Adam Rippon make the world better?
A Merriam-Webster definition of “outrage” includes “the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult.” So there could be two ingredients to outrage: a perceived transgression and all the ensuing ruckus. In the case of Sacco, outrage includes her tweet and the controversy around it. I’m most interested in the commotion, often larger than the indiscretion. I believe all that group energy can be redirected toward positive change.
My guiding question is: How did we get here, and is there any way to intervene?
Social media may thrive on mercilessness, but now we are the editors with the authority to insist on dignity.
Trauma from “online outrage” has driven me to read voraciously about offline outrage. I started with Shirley Jackson, whose famous story, “The Lottery,” is a perfect evocation of the mania of lynch mobs, of the sort we see on Twitter. In it, we encounter a sleepy New England village with a dark side, where each year, locals conduct a stoning for the good of the community, although no one remembers why or bothers to protest. If all goes smoothly, the unlucky “winner” will die before lunch, and everyone can go back to work. It concludes when Tessie Hutchinson, the protagonist, draws the slip of paper marked with a black dot:
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
“The Lottery” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and set off a barrage of angry letters, more than the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction. Readers called it “outrageous” and thought Jackson was “perverted.” Many were so confused or offended they threatened to cancel their subscriptions. One reader wrote: “I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all.”
In another case of vintage hate mail, I looked up responses to James Baldwin’s “Letter From a Region in My Mind” in the New York Public Library. Baldwin’s exquisite essay appeared in The New Yorker in November 1962 and asked that “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” be “like lovers” to raise awareness of racial prejudice.
A few responses could have provided tutorial content for any modern-day troll. A man from Phoenix wrote that Baldwin’s piece was “a verbose, rambling, sentimental diatribe against white citizens, particularly Americans.” Most letters were congratulatory toward Baldwin, not full of the flames I expected. I was about to return the 1962 box when I peeked at the December files of that year. Readers despised the Christmas cover by William Steig, a cartoonist who would later create Shrek.
The illustration depicted a man reading the Christmas story to his little girl. Bible characters looked like they were drawn by children, with one wise man wearing spectacles. A wide-eyed Mary, with curly hair and a smile, didn’t have the beatific expression most people grew up seeing. Yet this benign cartoon generated 103 letters, most of them steaming with angst. Christmas is not “merely a handy bedtime story,” wrote a woman from Milwaukee. “After a dash of lip service to the Birth of Christ Americans sink back into their spiritual void.”
One postcard was pre-printed with a statement from the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization that protested objectionable material in movies. It was signed by three women from Los Angeles who claimed the illustration was “BLASPHEMOUS,” in all capital letters.
“We are a Christian country, and I find nothing amusing in the story of the birth of Christ,” typed Wilma Jones of New York City. “Had my Mother come to our home and seen this cover before I ripped it off, I do believe that she would never have entered our doors again.”
Today, chatter on Steig’s cover art would pulsate through Fox News, CNN, and every mobile device in the land. But this pre-internet buzz was interesting. Without the ability to build off each other’s opinions, readers from all over the country took to their pens and typewriters at about the same time. Their grandiose language appears just as ridiculous as the tweets of today. I sensed an undercurrent of collective anxiety that had nothing to do with the illustration.
A Google search revealed the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended a month before. With the threat of nuclear war so close to American shores, paranoia ran high. A few readers did suspect a relationship between the magazine’s cover and a rise in Communism that threatened their safety. While the comments seem crazy in retrospect, I remember how passionate I was after 9/11 and Sandy Hook. Anything might have set off alarms in the winter of 1962, including a cartoon.
Every generation has episodes of scapegoating, according to Rachel Christ, who is the director of education at the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. In her role at the museum, Christ is uniquely anchored in 1692, the year of the deadliest witch hunt in American history. In that hyperbolic year, hundreds of townspeople were accused of witchcraft, then a criminal offense punishable by hanging. Of the accused, 19 hanged and one man was pressed to death for his refusal to make a false confession. To this day, there is no evidence any of the accused practiced witchcraft, then defined as making pacts with the Devil for special powers.
Descendants of the trials number in the millions; many visit the museum to make sense of their families’ pasts.
“We try to be the voice of innocent people who cannot speak for themselves,” Christ told me. “We have a formula at the museum that is fear plus trigger equals scapegoat.”
While the term “witch hunt” is often misused to represent the strategic disgrace of one person, Christ said the real meaning describes the blaming of groups. Prolonged panic often creates dangerous situations for outliers. Examples of the museum’s witch hunt formula include: fear of infection + AIDS = blame on the gay community. With current scientific knowledge, we can look back at the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and know that gay people do not cause AIDS. Yet back then, tens of thousands of people in the U.S. died from the disease each year with no hope of containment. The gay community became the scapegoats. Other examples at the museum include Japan + Pearl Harbor = blame Japanese Americans. In the 1940s, anxiety over Japan combined with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the disgraceful incarceration of Japanese Americans into concentration camps.
Puritans in 17th-century Salem feared God and the Devil. Additionally, they lived with the constant threat of disease, an uneven distribution of wealth, and fatal Native American attacks. A revoked royal charter resulted in a lapse in legal proceedings that added heat to land disputes. When Dr. William Griggs diagnosed “afflicted” girls as victims of dark magic, he triggered the Salem Witch Trials. Scapegoats were 150 townspeople, most of them women.
Dr. Jonathan Fast, author of Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying and Violence, knows about scapegoats. He recently described their function on Comedy Central. If shame were cheese, Fast could identify every wedge on your platter. The rest of us would rather not talk about shame because we’re ashamed of being ashamed. And that’s a huge part of the problem, if not the cause, of us acting out against each other.
During the McCarthy era, his father, novelist Howard Fast, was imprisoned for contempt of Congress, so the fallout of unresolved shame is especially real to him. In his book, he mentions that shame can be “evolutionary,” meaning humiliation remains for generations until it finds a resolution.
Fast told me, “I would say shame of a particular group, unacknowledged and displaced, combined with the availability of a vulnerable, defenseless, frighteningly different and suspect ‘target’ is a more accurate and useful way of describing it, since it suggests a cure, a means of intervening. Acknowledge the shame, take responsibility for it, recognize the scapegoat as being nothing more than a target and poof, it’s gone.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, he admits. But healing is possible through programs like Names Can Really Hurt Us. Developed by the Anti Defamation League, these “Names Day” assemblies help children admit wrongs and move toward forgiveness. In his book, Fast describes such an event where students bared their souls and “hugged it out.”
I wondered if similar events might be necessary on the internet, a movement to reckon with past tweets with a new hashtag of #imsorryiposted. Twitter and Facebook should repair their shaky reputations by becoming early innovators.
I’ve started taking responsibility for my own digital behavior by reaching out to people I may have hurt. Reactions have ranged from silence to “let’s go out for coffee sometime.”
Earlier I mentioned the conservative writer whose article about Sandy Hook made me so mad I joined an attack against her. Truthfully, I got involved because I didn’t want my friends to think I condoned arming teachers with guns. Hoping to “name my shame” in an apology, I looked her up. Although I admired her education and her website’s design, I saw she regularly penned inflammatory high-traffic articles and described herself as “mean” in her Twitter bio. So I decided not to open my heart to a clickbait bully. Nor did I read beyond her exaggerated headlines, engineered to make me want to kick a wall. Instead of “hugging it out,” I sent her reasonably positive thoughts and felt more “connected.”
During the Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford hearings, I witnessed the array of likes and heart and angry-face emoji that flew up my the right side of my screen in Facebook Live. Terrible comments ranged from Judge Kavanaugh’s “cry face” to Dr. Ford’s “baby” request for caffeine. Now I labeled these raw emotions as unprocessed trauma. Doing so made me feel like I was catching fireflies in a jar. For glimmering milliseconds, I saw fury dissipate whenever anyone employed a sincere statement that started with: “I’m so sorry that … ” Trolls were still hideous, but gentleness forced them to switch tactics. I realized: Empathy is the weapon.
Social media may thrive on mercilessness, but now we are the editors with the authority to insist on dignity. We can reach out to people we have harmed. We can identify and manage shame to ease tension in our communities. And when an explosive piece of content pops up on our news feeds, we don’t have to engage at all. Instead, we can pursue ethical, researched articles that feed a network of responsible journalists. Our clicks are like applause. Without attention, outrage is no bigger than a lightning bug.