2014: The Year the Outrage Machine Started Eating the Real World

If you’re inclined to believe #slatepitches, then 2014 was the Year Of Outrage. The Internet’s favorite shrine to contrarianism published an interactive calendar earlier this month wherein one can track, day by day, the things about which we (“we” being liberal American adults on the Internet, basically) were outraged this year. I’m not so sure this year was any different to any other, though: the public has always been fond of being righteously outraged, and for the last few years, at least, the Internet has felt like (and been characterized as) a giant outrage machine. But 2014 did feel like a landmark in one respect: it was the year that the outrage machine proved its power to chew up and spit out people IRL as well as on Twitter or Tumblr. It was a year in which the precipitous fall taken by Bill Cosby, in particular, proved that it’s much, much harder for stars to bury unflattering narratives these days. But the ever-growing power of the angry mob also has pretty terrifying implications if you take an old-fashioned view of what constitutes justice.

Rage face

There have certainly been plenty of hand-wringing thinkpieces this year lamenting the rise of rage culture (and at least one about how the 300 Sandwiches kerfuffle may have saved us from invading Syria). But notably, two of the biggest stories of 2014 demonstrate the flip-side of that culture: instances where the Internet’s unparalleled ability to disseminate information, and to do so relentlessly, has shone light into hitherto dark places. I’m talking about the fall of Bill Cosby and the near-fall of R. Kelly. Both cases involved allegations that have been on the public record for years, but had nevertheless disappeared from public attention. (And, it should be noted, both involved black men: the sordid history of white celebrities tends to remain buried far more readily than that of men like Kelly and Cosby.)

In both cases, you can trace the story’s reemergence back to a single moment. First there was Jessica Hopper’s interview with Jim DeRogatis in the Village Voice, right at the end of last year, which brought to light (again) the details of the multiple rape accusations against Kelly. Not long after, DeRogatis himself penned a piece entitled, “Why Are People Finally Paying Attention to R. Kelly’s Many Crimes?” DeRogatis’ piece was interesting and perceptive, but the answer could have been summarized in three words: the outrage machine.

It was the same with Cosby: again, all it took was one person to say, “Wait, look at this.” In this case, it was Hannibal Buress flat-out calling Cosby a rapist on stage. The next morning, you could feel the entire Internet rubbing its eyes and saying, “Oh yeah, so what was the deal with Cosby?” As it turned out, the deal with Cosby was just as awful as the Kelly accusations: decades’ worth of women telling stories of having been drugged and assaulted.

Bill Cosby, Camille CosbyNot long after Buress’ performance, the Cosby thinkpieces started to appear. Then one of Cosby’s alleged victims, Barbara Bowman, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post. And then… well, you can choose your own metaphor: the floodgates opening, the avalanche building, a shower turning into hurricane. However you want to put it, in the course of about three weeks, the attention given to the Cosby accusations increased exponentially, to the point that it could no longer be ignored by anyone (except Cosby himself, who’s still defiantly sticking to a strategy of stonewalling that simply no longer works). The fallout was dramatic: a canceled NBC project, a shelved Netflix special, pulled Cosby Show re-runs all over the place. This wasn’t a case of people online saying nasty things; this was quantifiable and significant damage to whatever’s left of Cosby’s career.

Both with Cosby and with Kelly, we had public interest being reignited in accusations that had been actively suppressed or allowed to just fade away. In the past, it was relatively easy to bury a story: gaslight and discredit the accuser, cozy up to the press, call in some favors. There were only so many ways that news could get out. Once those channels were closed, a story would live on, at best, as a rumor, discussed in bars and over dinner, always laden with an air of doubt and hearsay.

In 2014, it’s almost impossible for that to happen once the story gains any sort of momentum. Thanks in large part to social media, there’s an infinite number of leaks to plug. No doubt some stories are still suppressed before they ever get reported, but once there’s anything on the public record, it just takes one person to notice it and tweet it… and the story’s gone, beyond anyone’s control.

Even if the outrage machine stuck exclusively to eviscerating celebrities who have been burying bad press for decades, its power to destroy would be kind of terrifying. But, of course, it doesn’t. The case that springs to mind immediately is that of the musician Conor Oberst, accused of rape by one Joanie Faircloth in a series of comments on an xoJane article. The pattern was the same: the original comments appeared, they sat idle for a couple of days, not garnering any attention beyond their original forum… then someone reported them, at which point they started doing the rounds on Twitter and Tumblr. And suddenly they were everywhere.

oberst2It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that all three cases — Kelly, Cosby, and Oberst — involved sexual assault. As we all know, it’s a crime that’s notoriously hard to prove and to prosecute, and even more so when years have passed since the alleged incident. In the cases of Kelly and Cosby, it appears from sheer weight of evidence that the Internet’s collective guilty verdict is most likely justified. The case of Oberst was quite a bit different.

As I wrote at the time, the simple fact was that no one knew what had happened except Oberst and his accuser. As so often happens with rape, it was a game of he-said, she-said, except in this case neither he nor she was saying anything — Oberst released a brief statement denying the accusations, and Faircloth went to ground. There was no information beyond a couple of deleted comments made by a woman about which the world knew next to nothing. Of course, because the Internet abhors a vacuum of information, this only served to heighten the rage and speculation. Commentators pronounced Oberst guilty or innocent without the slightest hint of a doubt, on the basis of absolutely nothing beyond personal conviction and confirmation bias.

As it transpired, Faircloth withdrew the allegations after Oberst threatened to sue her. But no one will come out of this story unscathed: there will always be people out there who now believe, no matter what, that Conor Oberst is a rapist. Faircloth, meanwhile, has her credibility left in shreds — there’ll be people to whom she’ll always be the crazy girl who made the false accusation. Either way, the Internet feeding frenzy has done her no favors: if her accusation was true, it seems almost impossible for her to ever pursue it, and if it was false, she most likely needs serious help. Having her story plastered all over the Internet (in violation of her express wishes) did her no more good than it did Oberst.

None of this bothered the Internet judge/jury/executioners, though, who had already happily moved on. The Internet being the Internet, though, what’s forgotten isn’t necessarily gone. The Frisky’s hugely irresponsible “Why I Believe Conor Oberst’s Anonymous Rape Accuser” essay, for instance, is still online, prefaced only by a one-sentence “update” that’s essentially the journalistic equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. In cyberspace, accusations never die: they just sit there, somewhere on Google, waiting for people to dredge them up again. It’s for this reason that there have been recent cases in the EU regarding a right to be forgotten.

In Oberst’s case, most mentions of the whole sorry business do seem to have been expunged from Google — if you search his name now, there’s only one result referencing the incident on the front page, and that’s Pitchfork’s report of Faircloth’s apology. This makes sense; Oberst was a well-known figure long before the Faircloth story, and it’s entirely possible that his web team have been doing their best SEO snake-oil ceremonies to promote anything and everything that’s not rape-related.

If you’re not a public figure with plenty of other results and a PR team to work the SEO, though, you might not be quite so lucky. Remember Justine Sacco? If you’ve forgotten, she’s the PR exec who, shortly before boarding a plane to South Africa, tweeted this:

Justine Sacco

The tweet came to the attention of Gawker’s Sam Biddle, who published it on a slow news day, at which point all hell broke loose. #HasJustineLandedYet started trending on Twitter, and when Justine did finally land, she did so to find herself without a job and with a new status as the Internet’s most hated woman. Of course, that status was transitory; even a week later, if the name “Justine Sacco” was mentioned, it was only in the context of discussions along the lines of, “Hey, I wonder what happened to…” or, “Hey, remember that woman with the racist tweet?” Search for her name, though, and her public humiliation plays out all over again, preserved in Google for all eternity.

There was a postscript to the story last week, though, when Biddle published an account of the unlikely friendship he’s struck up with Sacco since the shitstorm subsided. And surprise, surprise: it turns out, Biddle tells us, that Sacco isn’t the Antichrist. She’s a woman who composed an ill-advised tweet that, shorn of context — and context is one thing that the Internet, and especially Twitter isn’t at all good at surfacing — made her look like an obnoxious racist, just before she got on a plane. She landed to find her life turned upside down.

These are the stories we almost never hear: what Justine Sacco’s life looks like now. What the end result of the righteous outrage meted out to her actually was. What is Conor Oberst’s life like now? How’s Joanie Faircloth coping? (Because, let’s be honest, the rage machine chewed her up and spat her out too.) We’re presented these people as one-dimensional avatars of views we’re meant to either endorse or repudiate. They’re not so much people as they are symbols, faces to be published with a topical caption in all-caps Impact.

Except they are people. If you take Biddle’s word for it, Sacco is a perfectly pleasant woman who was making a rather ham-fisted attempt at highlighting the disparity between AIDS infection rates for white South Africans and their black counterparts — her fault was in doing so in a way that left room for misinterpretation, because if there’s one thing that’s certain about the Internet, it’s that it will always, always believe the worst about you. But sometimes the worst isn’t the whole story. Sometimes it’s the wrong story.

If you don’t think about this fact, it’s great fun to play the Internet blame game: scroll through the Racists Getting Fired Tumblr, for instance, and revel in the way that the Internet is striking out at people who post racist shit on Facebook. I’m sure that the majority of the people featured are genuine racists who probably do deserve to get fired. But we’ve already seen one case of someone trying to use the site to discredit an ex-girlfriend. And why not? As Guns n’ Roses said, it’s so easy. Mock up a Facebook post of your target saying something horrible, submit it, sit back and watch the fireworks.

We’ve already seen something similar this month: while I have no liking at all for self-appointed conservative blogger and general dickhead Chuck C. Johnson, I also have no idea if he actually shat on the floor at his school. And yet, I’ll admit it, I giggled gleefully at the #ChuckCJohnsonPoopedOnTheFloor hashtag, both because it was hilarious (come on, it was) and because it seemed to preclude anyone ever taking him seriously again. (That and the fact that the woman he falsely outed as being the Rolling Stone UVA rape victim will probably sue him into oblivion.)

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Did Chuck C. Johnson really shit on the floor? Who knows? Does it even matter? The simple answer is that, no, it doesn’t, because (literally, in this case) shit sticks. Especially if you write on the Internet for a living, this is scary: it’d be awfully easy for some sort of anonymous person in our comment section to accuse me of doing something equally humiliating. If enough people out there decided they didn’t like me, it wouldn’t matter whether the accusation were true or completely made up. People believe what they want to believe. (See also: Lena Dunham getting called a sex criminal.)

And here’s the thing: even the people on Racists Getting Fired who are flat-out racist are still people, three-dimensional human beings who have motivations and stories that extend beyond what they said in a fateful Facebook post. I’m not defending them, but the idea of someone being publicly pilloried and deprived of their means of living in a country with basically no welfare safety net, on the basis of a single Facebook post that may or may not be genuine and may or may not have a Sacco-esque context we’re not aware of — that’s wrong. It’s mob-and-pitchfork “justice,” and that’s no justice at all. How long until someone like Justine Sacco kills herself?

It seems pointless to lament this state of affairs, or to call for common sense. The Internet is a mirror for humanity, and humanity has always been lacking in this respect. It’s precisely because of the public’s tendency toward unilateral mob justice that we have a judicial system, and that vigilante justice is illegal, no matter how apparently justified. The difference is that in the past, mob justice manifested on a local level. These days, it manifests on a global one. When it comes to campaigns to expose dark secrets that have remained hidden, sure, that’s great. You can’t imagine, say, Jimmy Savile being able to operate in plain sight for 50 years these days, without someone starting a hashtag campaign to bring him down.

With this in mind, it’s hard, on balance, to unilaterally condemn the rage machine. But by god, it’s terrifying. This is the virtual world we’ve built for ourselves. All you can really do is not fuck up — and even that’s often not enough, because if the Internet decides it just doesn’t like you, you’ll still get rape threats and death threats, and if you complain about them, then someone like Gamergate pied piper Milo Yiannopoulous will accuse you of playing the victim.

Milo Yiannopoulos

In fact, Gamergate is essential to this conversation, too: Perhaps no other story in 2014 showed just how destructive and dangerous an Internet mob can be. Again, you can trace it back to a single source: in this case, Zoe Quinn’s bitter ex-boyfriend publishing a long blog post about how awful she was. And, again, you can trace how it exploded into a global story. (Perhaps the best summation of the whole thing is this Twitter capture of a Gamergater arguing with a bot.)

Inscrutable, faceless, strident, devoid of accountability — these descriptors sum up Gamergate and the Internet mob in general. And the way Gamergate’s asinine “cause” has had tangible effects on people’s lives is a perfect portrait of 2014: it’s not that this hasn’t happened before, but it seems to be happening more and more often. At its best, the Internet can enable or expedite the delivery of justice, and/or provide a forum for those who may previously have been denied a platform for expression. Both these things are hugely positive developments.

At its worst, though, it has a propensity to catalyze witch-hunts and harassment campaigns. A bunch of people refusing to be quiet about decades’ worth of rape accusations? Great. A bunch of assholes trying to ruin your life because they don’t like your videos? No one deserves that. And it doesn’t even have to be a bunch of assholes; it only takes one person. Think about that next time you hit the RT button.