The Airtight Case Against Internet Pile-Ons

Whether or not they’re famous (or blameless), people deserve accurate depictions in the media.

illustration of computer cursors pointing in a circle
Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Young women are struggling. “Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported in 2021 that they seriously considered suicide—up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago—according to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” The Washington Post reports. Drawing on the same study, Axios notes, “About 30% of teen girls said they had seriously considered attempting suicide, up from 19% in 2011.” What is going on? Whether you have young women in your life who have shaped your perspective or other experiences with this topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Conversations of Note

When Jon Ronson published So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in 2015, I hoped his numerous illustrations of online mobs meting out cruelty in the guise of holding others accountable would persuade the masses that joining digital pile-ons does more harm than not––both because the facts of various matters so often prove different, or more complicated, than they at first seemed and because even in cases where an individual deserves some punishment or sanction, zealous hordes are incapable of proportion. The hate of uncoordinated vigilantes who purport to hold others accountable can add up to so much punishment that their targets wind up pondering suicide.

For individuals, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is an undervalued rule. For media institutions, who purport to act in the public interest and rightly consider accountability in their ambit, I‘d posit a special responsibility to refrain from initiating or amplifying false or misleading stories––and where coverage is later proved to be misleading, to revise unjustly unflattering portraits of individuals as prominently as they published them.

Alas, even in cases where targets of public opprobrium are especially rich and famous––which is to say, possessed of more ability than most of us to counter false or misleadingly one-sided information––coverage that seems likely to tarnish a person’s reputation is too often far more prominent than coverage that seems likely to burnish or revive it.

For example, in “Armie Hammer Breaks His Silence,” the journalist James Kirchick revisits the case of an actor whose career was destroyed when he faced accusations of extreme sexual misconduct. Although Kirchick’s reporting doesn’t resolve anything definitively, it includes significant facts that readers of the original coverage ought to know as updates, as they give very different impressions of what might have happened. As yet, however, publishers of bygone coverage have not updated their articles. (Kirchick has expounded on his reporting process for Meghan Daum and The Fifth Column.)

And at The Free Press, Megan Phelps-Roper is launching a series, “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” that will probe the vilification of the famous author of the Harry Potter books. Rowling is portrayed by some as a transphobic bigot whose views are egregiously beyond the pale––and were that true, opprobrium would be appropriate. Bigotry against trans people is indeed odious. But do Rowling’s actual words validate the ways that she has been characterized? Cathy Young, Kat Rosenfield, Brendan Morrow, and the Blocked and Reported podcast have all found significant evidence of dubious attacks––and at least one Rowling attacker retracted his claims rather than defend them in court.

Less famous subjects of vilification are far less likely to have anyone following up to vindicate them (commentators on the populist right are throwing around accusations of “grooming” children as widely and frivolously as any character assassins in American life). However, Nicole Carr of ProPublica proved an exception to that rule last year, telling the story of Cecelia Lewis, an educator wrongly hounded out of a job and followed to another during a moral panic about what participants erroneously thought of as critical race theory.

Whether a person is famous or obscure, blameworthy or blameless, they deserve, at the very least, scrupulous accuracy when their behavior is described to mass audiences. Folks on the right and left who fall short of that mark are more alike than they think. As long as their carelessness is so frequent, the case against pile-ons is airtight.

Joe Biden’s Criminal-Justice-Reform Failures

At The Marshall Project, Jamiles Lartey argues that the administration has failed to clear a low bar that it set:

Last May, President Joe Biden sat with family members of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the White House as he signed an executive order he called the “most significant police reform in decades.”

One of the more notable promises in the order was setting up a “National Law Enforcement Accountability Database,” that would collect detailed information about officers who committed misconduct. The deadline to launch it was Jan. 20, the same day that five Memphis police officers were fired for the beating death of Tyre Nichols—a killing that has once more ignited national debate about policing. The Department of Justice has yet to announce the database, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its status.

Deadlines for other initiatives in Biden’s order, like new standards for credentialing police departments, appear to have also come and gone without acknowledgement or public results.

On Art and Supposed Harm

In a New York Times column about the censorship of art and “the anxious philistinism that can result when bureaucratic cowardice meets maximalist ideas about safety,” Michelle Goldberg writes:

I’m not naïve enough to believe that if the left rediscovered a passionate commitment to free speech, the right would give up its furious campaign against what it calls wokeness. But I do think that if the left is to mount a convincing response to what has become a wholesale assault on intellectual liberty and free expression, it needs to be able to defend challenging and provocative work.

A Business Contagion

In The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey argues that layoffs at one company tend to spur layoffs at other companies for various reasons that may have nothing to do with a financial imperative to carry them out:

When executives see their corporate competitors letting go of workers, they seize what they see as an opportunity to reduce their workforce, rather than having no choice but to do so.

Shedding employees when everybody else is doing it avoids drawing public scrutiny to or creating reputational damage for a given firm, for one. A lone business announcing that it is downsizing is likely to be described as mismanaged or troubled, and may well be mismanaged or troubled. However merited, that kind of reputation tends to hinder a company from attracting investment, workers, and customers. But if a firm downsizes when everyone else is doing it, the public seldom notices and investors seldom care.

Copycat layoffs also let executives cite challenging business conditions as a justification for cuts, rather than their own boneheaded strategic decisions. In this scenario, the problem isn’t that corporate leadership poured billions of dollars into a quixotic new venture or hired hundreds of what ended up being redundant employees. It’s not that the C-suite misunderstood the competitive environment, necessitating a costly and painful readjustment. It’s Jay Powell! It’s a COVID-related reversion to the mean! Who could have known?

In addition to being simpler for executives to explain to their shareholders or the board, large-scale copycat layoffs are easier to carry out and better received by employees than selective or strategic layoffs. Managers let staffers go instead of firing them, blaming economic conditions rather than detailing their direct reports’ shortcomings. Morale might take less of a hit if the remaining workers fault the broader business environment instead of their bosses.

Another possible reason layoffs are contagious is that executives might take other firms’ hiring and firing decisions as a kind of market intelligence. Even when a company’s own financials appear sound, it may interpret a competitor’s layoff announcement as a sign of worsening conditions.

Provocation of the Week

In Unherd, Thomas Fazi explains why he is worried about World War III:

By providing increasingly powerful military equipment as well as financial, technical, logistical and training support to one of the warring factions, including for offensive operations (even within Russian territory), the West is engaged in a de facto military confrontation with Russia, regardless of what our leaders may claim.

Western citizens deserve to be told what is going on in Ukraine—and what the stakes are. Perhaps the wildest claim being made is that “if we deliver all the weapons Ukraine needs, they can win,” as former Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently asserted. For Rasmussen, and other Western hawks, this includes retaking Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and which it considers of the utmost strategic importance. Many Western allies still consider this an uncrossable red line. But for how long? Just last month, the New York Times reported that the Biden administration is warming up to the idea of backing a Ukrainian offensive on Crimea.

This strategy is based on the assumption that Russia will accept a military defeat and the loss of the territories it controls without resorting to the unthinkable—the use of nuclear weapons. But this is a massive assumption on which to gamble the future of humanity, especially coming from the very Western strategists who disastrously botched every major military forecast over the past 20 years, from Iraq to Afghanistan. The truth is that, from Russia’s perspective, it is fighting against what it perceives to be an existential threat in Ukraine, and there is no reason to believe that, with its back against the wall, it won’t go to extreme measures to guarantee its survival. As Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, put it: “The loss of a nuclear power in a conventional war can provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war. Nuclear powers do not lose major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

During the Cold War, this was widely understood by Western leaders. But today, by constantly escalating their support for Ukraine’s military, the United States and Nato appear to have forgotten it, and are instead inching closer to a catastrophic scenario.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.