Ariana Grande, David Leavitt, and the Internet’s Thirst for Villainy in the Wake of Tragedy

The wave of outrage directed at the guy who tweeted an ill-advised joke about Ariana Grande last night was WAY too Justine Sacco for comfort.

This morning brought the news that police have arrested a suspect for the horrific attack on the Ariana Grande show in Manchester last night; at the time of publication, he had just been named as one Salman Ramadan Abedi. You wouldn’t know this from Twitter, though: if there was some sort of Twitter Hatred-o-Meter you could consult, you’d be forgiven for guessing that the man responsible for the bombing was one David Leavitt of Boston, MA.

As it turns out, Leavitt is kind of a twat, but he’s not a murderer. He tweeted an impressively ill-advised and unfunny joke — since deleted — shortly after the news of the bombing broke:

And, when people got upset, he issued a non-apology of which your average celebrity or shitty PR firm would be proud:

It is, objectively, a bad joke. But it’s the sort of bad joke that’s been around for as long as humanity has been; we tend to make light of tragedy, sometimes as a coping mechanism, and sometimes because we’re dicks. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, it didn’t take long for the joke to get around my primary school playground that NASA stood for “Need Another Seven Astronauts.” 9/11 jokes started on 9/12 (“What’s Al-Qaeda’s favorite football team? The New York Jets!”) And so on.

These jokes are in poor taste, but they’re not hanging offenses. So too, was Leavitt’s joke, which was wayyyyy too soon, as they say, and likely to upset those connected to anyone involved in the attack, Grande’s fans, and — let’s not forget — also Grande herself, who apparently is not doing too well in the aftermath of last night.

The difference is that in 2017, jokes that were once whispered in private are now whispered on social media, and, as we apparently have to continually remind everyone, that’s not whispering at all. Anything you say on social media is public, and it behooves all of us to think carefully about what we put out into the world. Once’s something’s on the internet, it’s there forever, and if you say something obnoxious in public in the wake of an awful tragedy, people are going to get upset at you.

Of course, there’s something about the nature of social media that encourages just the opposite of thinking carefully before you speak. The clue’s there in Leavitt’s confession that “I always make stupid jokes about whatever’s trending.” Twitter, especially, often feels like a competition to be the one who makes the funniest or snappiest tweet about any given event. If your 140-character witticism is better than everyone else’s (or, more likely, happens to be in the right place at the right time), you’re rewarded with a slew of retweets, and that brings you… well, nothing at all, really, but there are still nice little dopamine hits to be had every time you get a push notification on your phone. And so everyone responds as fast as they can, and every so often, something like David Leavitt’s joke happens.

Still, it’s worth thinking about why the internet gets so upset at people like Leavitt. The person who sprang to mind immediately last night when I was watching him go through the public shame cycle was Justine Sacco, another person who tweeted an ill-advised joke and was ritually slaughtered for doing so. Sacco’s story became the subject of a book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and also a long moment of reflection by Sam Biddle, the writer who first drew attention to her infamous tweet.

In his follow-up piece, Biddle wondered about the motive for what he called “the righteous Twitter mob”:

Each time, each slap, was the same: If we could only put one more wrongheaded head on a pike, humiliate one more bigoted sorority girl or ignorant Floridian, we could heal this world. Each, next outrage post was the one that would make a difference.

He’s right, I think, because it seems that a lot of the motivation for Twitter justice comes from a feeling of impotence. Much of our quality of life is dictated by things over which we have no control at all. We’re all passengers in a car that we never get to drive, and few of us particularly like where it’s headed. When something like the attack in Manchester happens, there’s an urge to do something about it… but what is there to do? What can any of us do about ISIS, or the Middle East policy that created it, or society’s ingrained misogyny, or any of the other factors that may have caused last night’s bombing?

Nothing, obviously. But we can drag the guy who made the stupid joke. There was a similar motive at play in the notorious Reddit suspect scavenger hunt after the Boston bombing. At face value, an act of terrorism is something entirely inscrutable. By its very nature, it defies rational explanation. It’s a natural human response to want to put a face to that act, to have someone to lash out at, someone whose motivations can be pored over, someone to blame. In the case of the Boston marathon, the Reddit hive mind decided that it was going to find someone, anyone, to blame — and it didn’t take long for it to do so. Sadly, the collective wisdom of a million carbuncular armchair detectives isn’t up to the task of real police work, as the unfortunate Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi — who appeared on the cover of the New York Post as “suspects” (and it says something about that paper that it apparently does its journalism on Reddit) — can attest.

Thankfully, in this case, the internet hasn’t attempted to find a suspect — on the whole, the power of social media and always-on connectivity have been put to good use, in trying to find missing people and in co-ordinating responses and distribution of aid. But it has, nevertheless, found someone to blame: the hapless David Leavitt, who stuck his head into the lion’s mouth of his own free will, and spent most of last night with the lion’s incisors mashing at his skull.

But really, there’s nothing good about this entire saga. Mob justice — any sort of mob justice — is no justice at all, and raining righteous outrage that’s orders of magnitude disproportionate to the nature of the offense onto someone, anyone, is a process that diminishes everyone involved. Seeking catharsis at the expense of others is human nature, perhaps, but on the whole — there are exceptions, obviously — it’s a part of human nature that does us no favors.