Outrage Twitter, and the end of the benefit of the doubt

Globe & Mail
Outrage Twitter, and the end of the benefit of the doubt
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016 6:00AM EDT


Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware, who has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, BBC, and The Economist.

Last week, we learned that Ellen Degeneres is racist after she tweeted a photoshopped image of Usain Bolt carrying her piggyback with a caption that read: “This is how I’m running errands from now on.”

Well, Good Twitter People everywhere did what they do best: screen-grabbed the image, made a lot of noise, and set off a wildfire of outrage in the hopes of forcing the Offensive Person to apologize or lose her job. (Sadly, they are often too successful at both.)

“You thought it’d be funny to post a pic of yourself riding on the back of a Black man?,” tweeted one angry man. “Nope. Delete this racist garbage.”

Ellen did not cave in to pressure to take down the image, but she did put out a statement. “I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am.”

As it turns out, good intentions do not really matter on Twitter, a platform that rewards snap judgments, knee-jerk reactions and the ability not to worry oneself with having to give anyone a second thought.

The poster child for what I’m talking about is Justine Sacco, the 30-year-old PR rep whose life was destroyed after tweeting an ill-advised joke, one that Good Internet People everywhere, at the prodding of a Gawker blogger, deemed incredibly racist. Jon Ronson wrote about the fiasco for his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. After speaking with Sacco and several others who found themselves in similar situations, Ronson determined that many of those people we gang up on via Twitter ”“ you’re never going to believe it! ”“ are not actually terrible people.

In an insightful interview with Vox, Ronson compares drive-by-tweeters to drone strike operators, both of which seem to be lacking in empathy. “Maybe we should always be in the same room as our victims,” he suggests.

As it turns out, we can do that ”“ we can enter into their minds and their worlds and ask a very simple question: Did they really mean this the way I’m taking it?

That’s right. The skill that just might save our digital generation is The Benefit of the Doubt.

Now, it used to be that we all instinctively gave each other The Benefit of the Doubt. We learned this skill from our parents (“I don’t think Tommy meant to hurt your feelings”) and our favourite art, which always reminded us that people are more complicated than we sometimes give them credit for. Take, for example, Severus Snape or Boo Radley or the guy with the shovel from Home Alone, all of whom taught us the basic moral that People Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt.

Oh, but people are horrible, we exclaim! They’re racist and sexist and homophobic. Indeed ”“ some of them are. Which is precisely why we need to reserve those words for actual instances of those things. Outrage Twitter has become the place where people are encouraged to cry Outrage Wolf. Too bad for the sheep when actual wolves, armed with more than well-meaning jokes, come along.

My hunch here is that we, Good Internet People, usually know deep down that a person we are attacking is not really what we are making her out to be. We know Bette Midler is not transphobic, and we know Ru Paul ”“ Ru Paul! ”“ isn’t either. We know Alec Baldwin is not a homophobe. We know Trevor Noah does not hate Jews.

It’s just that Twitter isn’t the kind of place where we are encouraged to know who a person really is, because we’re all a string of context-less words shared in the hopes of accumulating the most engagement. But what I am hoping is that we can begin to look past the 140 characters to the complicated and probably well-meaning human being behind them. More than that, I hope we can begin to look behind our own tweets, to the people who somehow take delight in the public undoing of others.

In my old digital newsroom, we were instructed to really think about our Twitter jokes, to think about the worst way those jokes could be interpreted. Imagine having to ask yourself every day, “How is someone going to try to destroy my career by twisting this into something they know I don’t mean?”

C.S. Lewis once pointed out that we are quick to make excuses for ourselves and think the worst about others. How about switching it up?

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