Home / Opinion / We live in fear of online mobs

James Damore, the author of the notorious Google memo, has had his 15 minutes of fame. In six months, few of us will be able to remember his name. But Google will remember—not the company, but the search engine. For the rest of his life, every time he meets someone new or applies for a job, the first thing they will learn about him, and probably the only thing, is that he wrote a document that caused an internet uproar.

The internet did not invent the public relations disaster, or the summary firing to make said disaster go away. What the internet changed is the scale of the disasters, and the number of people who are vulnerable to them, and the implacable permanence of the wreckage they leave behind.

Try to imagine the Damore story happening 20 years ago. Take a company of similar scope to Google—Microsoft, say. Would any reporter in 1997 have cared that some Microsoft engineer she’d never heard of had written a memo his co-workers considered sexist? Probably not.

Compare to what has happened in this internet era: The memo became public, and the internet erupted against the author, quite publicly executing his economic and social prospects. I doubt Damore will ever again be employable at anything resembling his old salary and status.

This kind of private coercion is not entirely new, of course. Community outrage cost plenty of people their jobs or their businesses in the old days. But those were local scandals. Rarely would someone’s notoriety follow them if they moved to another city.

Over time more people have suffered national stigma that outlasts their 15 minutes of fame. Cable news accelerated this: Think of Monica Lewinsky in 1998. The internet transformed the degree of scrutiny, the extent of its reach, and the shelf life of the scandal, so much as to make it different not just in degree, but in kind.

Whenever a new form of power arises, we need to think about how to safeguard individual liberty against it.

In the early days of Twitter, I used to say that it was a bit like I imagined living in a forager band to be: You were immersed in a constant stream of conversation from the people you knew. Ten years later, I still think that’s the right metaphor, but not in the way that I meant it then. Back then I saw Twitter as a tool for building social bonds. These days, I see it as a tool for social coercion.

Forager bands do not have or need police. They have social coercion so powerful that it is just as effective as a gun to the head. If people don’t like you, they might not take care of you when you’re injured, at which point, you’ll die. Or they won’t share food with you when your hunting doesn’t go well, at which point, you’ll die.

We now effectively live in a forager band filled with people we don’t know. It’s like the world’s biggest small town, replete with all the things that mid-century writers hated about small-town life: the constant gossip, the prying into your neighbour’s business, the small quarrels that blow up into lifelong feuds. We have replicated all of the worst features of those communities without any of the saving graces, like the mercy that one human being naturally offers another when you’re face to face and can see their suffering.

And, of course, you can’t move away. There’s only one internet, and we’re all stuck here.

Private coercion starts looking less like a tool of local community-building. Without the tempering instincts of intimate contact, without the ability to exit, it looks a lot more like brute, impersonal government coercion.

Given the way the internet is transforming private coercion, I’m not sure we can maintain the hard, bright line that classical liberalism drew between state coercion and private versions. We may have to start talking about two kinds of problematic coercion:

Government coercion, which is still the worst, because it is backed up with guns, but is also the most readily addressed because we have a legal framework to limit government power.

Mass private coercion, which even if not quite as bad, still needs to have safeguards put in place to protect individual liberty. But we have no legal or social framework for those.

I find myself in conversations that sound as if we’re living in one of the later-stage Communist regimes. Not the ones that shot people, but the ones that discovered you didn’t need to shoot dissidents, as long as you could make them pariahs—no job, no apartment, no one willing to be seen talking to them in public.

Social media mobs are not, of course, as pervasive and terrifying as the Communist Party spies. But the Soviet Union is no more, and the mobs are very much with us, so it’s their power we need to think about. That power keeps growing, as does the number of subjects they want to declare off-limits to discussion. And unless it is checked, where does it lead?

To something depressingly like the old Communist states: a place where your true opinions about anything more important than tea cozies are only ever aired to a tiny circle of highly trusted friends; where all statements made to or by the people outside that circle are assumed by everyone to be lies; where almost every conversation is a guessing game that both sides lose.

It’s some comfort that the social media mobs don’t have guns. But that raises the most troubling question of all: how to disarm them. Bloomberg View

Megan Mcardle is a Bloomberg View columnist

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