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Cyberpitchforks and online mobs

Everyone is canceled,” wrote Jonah Engel Bromwich in The New York Times. By that he was referring to the vulnerability of public figures, particularly celebrities, to being openly shamed.

Just this past weekend, Twitter was on fire, with users eagerly canceling some local celebrities for alleged misdemeanors in the love department. Plentiful others had been targeted before them: influencers, YouTubers and anybody with a controversial statement and a public Twitter account. It makes the business of celebrity even more difficult.

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But even us ordinary folks on social media are just as vulnerable. In the wake of our most arduous attention toward political correctness and wokeness, is anybody really safe? “All it takes for someone to be canceled,” wrote Bromwich, “is for someone else to announce, via social media, that they are.”

Since it is insanely impossible to be completely politically correct all the time in this day and age, perhaps it would be wise to just opt out of the system. Everyone is canceled, in effect.

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I remember when a video of an ordinary girl in a public screaming match went viral. I thought it was astoundingly inhumane to be recorded without consent at such an unguarded moment, and especially for the video to be broadcast on the web where media now assumes immortality.

Our pitchforks were raised as we attacked a person online—inconsequentially, we thought, though it probably changed her life in a way she wouldn’t even wish on her worst enemies. She wouldn’t be the last, as the list of victims of online shaming is only getting longer. For celebrities, all it takes is an instance of misbehavior on camera, an offensive statement or even the most innocent of errors, and a zealous online mob is formed.

I remember when the phrase “trial by publicity” was still widely used; it meant a judgment formed by the press about a certain person even before a court trial has been held to determine the truth. Today, public platforms are accessible to anybody with mobile data. These trials by publicity have evolved into online frenzies where we easily cancel someone out without hearing his or her side of the story. Thus, “call-out culture” and “cancel culture” have been mainstreamed. To “cancel” someone, as Urban Dictionary defines it, is to “make someone irrelevant.”

This has created a tense atmosphere on the internet, because we’ve become phobic over potential backlash for things we do. And this is not harmless paranoia; in a 2017 survey called “The Destructiveness of Call-Out Culture on Campus” conducted by The Atlantic among undergraduates, the respondents expressed their fear of becoming a sudden subject of controversy over a post they had made online.

It is so easy, indeed, to be offended these days, and to lash back. Isn’t it tempting to expose people online? But it is also just as easy to commit an offense and be shamed for it in no time.

I believe in calling out problematic beliefs and statements, especially those rooted in misogyny, bigotry and homophobia. There are severely flawed value systems in society today that need some serious addressing. When we pinpoint these faults for correction, our society progresses and evolves into one that is hopefully more inclusive and informed. I also believe in reinforcing responsibility over public figures who sometimes forget the scope of their influence and their duty to be accountable to their constituents.

There is a fatal mistake we make, however, when we, as one massive online mob, summarily cancel people out. Online mobs, if you notice, always engage in personal attacks. This cancel culture oppresses the wrongdoer, but never addresses the wrongdoing. The wrongdoing lives on, but a person’s reputation ends up as roadkill.

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In 2015, Jon Ronson wrote the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” in response to online shaming having becoming rampant. In it, he said: “We need to think twice about raining down vengeance and anger as our default position.”

It’s compassion that will save us in the toxic, unforgiving online environment. Except, for many, instant outrage is just way easier and more pleasurable to give.

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