In the pre-Internet age, newspaper and television reporters would need clearance from their nosy managing editors to investigate a breaking scandal or firing. Additional journalists then would go to work uncovering facts and details. There were, to be sure, feeding frenzies and misinformation in the zeal to get a scoop or ensure an exclusive story. But the pursuit of a scandal was braked by both professional fears about the consequences of shoddy or biased reporting, and the absence of instantaneous electronic messaging and posting.
Suggestions of wrongdoing would be digested, debated, and disseminated for days or weeks within a larger cycle of warring op-ed columns and radio and television debate and commentary. In this often deliberate process, federal or local district attorneys and/or a grand jury, then, could monitor the public story, while conducting preliminary investigations to determine whether a criminal indictment was necessary. A court trial might follow.
Not now. The Internet and social media have either compressed—or pruned away entirely—such adjudication, which once ensured to the accused some presumption of innocence and constitutional due process. Well-meant and needed efforts—from calling to account sexual harassers to stopping Russian interference in U.S. politics to questioning the commemoration of Confederate-era racist slave-holders—can accelerate quickly out of control to the point where rumor, innuendo, or frenzy replace reason, fact, and fair adjudication. How ironic—or rather predictable—it is that the more rapid the transmission of a story, the more likely it is to be inaccurate or untrue.
Almost daily, another public figure is accused of sexual assault or harassment—Dustin Hoffman, Tavis Smiley, Larry King, Ryan Lizza, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer… The list goes on. The charges can go back decades, or at least precede the current statute of limitations, and often we lump together the accusers without much regard for the individual nature of the charges lodged against unique individuals.
Outrage can instantly give way to the outrageous. New York Times journalist Glenn Thrush condemned the predations of fellow journalist Mark Halperin—until he was likewise called out as a harasser a few days later. Actor Richard Dreyfuss grew furious after learning about Kevin Spacey’s groping of his son—and then old accusers stepped forward to make similar charges from his own distant past. Omar Ashmawy, staff director and chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics, was revealed to be under investigation for verbally abusing and physically assaulting women, the sort of allegations he is supposed to be probing.
The victims of harassment and assault—many justifiably infuriated by efforts to suppress their voices and stories—have come forward because they feel safe and secure, in part thanks to the sheer number of cases that appear in the news. The targets of their allegations are usually marquee journalists, movie or television celebrities, or prominent politicians or officials, and thus bound to garner attention of the sort felt necessary to change the larger cultural landscape.
The allegations often are not subject to either criminal or civil legal action and can appear first on a blog or Web site. In seconds, the details are flashed to millions on social media. In reaction, current and past employers issue condemnatory comments—sometimes announcing firings despite only preliminary investigations (or none at all). In some cases, we see a return of the ancient Roman custom of damnatio memoriae—the erasing of all evidence of a prior public existence. Radio personality and author Garrison Keillor’s show was not just yanked from the menu of Minnesota public radio, but so were all rebroadcasts of his prior Prairie Home Companion offerings. Yet we still do not know the full details of Keillor’s alleged sexual transgressions. Keillor certainly has said a variety of offensive things in years past and his recent responses seemed at times incoherent. But at 75 years of age, Keillor’s career of a half-century ended within minutes, without much information given to the public about the exact charges or his defense.
No one as yet has offered any workable guide to the electronic hangman. How do we calibrate, much less settle, social media-fed allegations of criminal activity? Of course, we should distinguish gutter talk and groping from exposure and coerced sexual intercourse—but what about the bad behavior that lies in between? Do we separate recent allegations from those well beyond the legal statute of limitations—or arbitrarily establish an actionable reach back to 20, 30, or 40 years?
To establish guilt, do we demand more than one or two witnesses, as well as three or four—or more—accusers? Do we weigh whether the accused has apologized for the act, denied it completely, or sort of apologized, by claiming that some—but not most—of the allegations were true? Do private payouts and public apologies carry the weight of court convictions—or does it just depend? Do changing cultural norms over a half-century warrant consideration?
Do we balance the accused’s talent and good deeds against his mistreatment of women? Long ago, the media (and law enforcement) decided that Ted Kennedy’s lethal negligence was offset by his liberal politics—and that allegations against Martin Luther King, Jr. could be forgiven because he was a civil rights legend who endured unimaginable hatred and pressures. Where do we stand on those cases today? Did the late Roger Ailes die a television pioneer or a rank sexual harasser? Does Monica Lewinsky represent a different sort of Bill Clinton transgression than a Juanita Broderick or Paula Jones?
Similarly thorny questions arise when considering the Russia scandal. In the last weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Internet buzzed with rumors of Trump’s “collusion” with Russia to subvert a sure Hillary Clinton victory. Blogs, Web sites, and podcasts made easy accusations that seemed to fit with Trump’s image of a wheeler-dealer, real-estate developer and reality TV star who lacked political and military experience.
After the improbable Trump victory, the sensationalism online only grew—as if the Kremlin, not a lackluster campaign, had cost Clinton the election. Soon a special counsel, Robert Mueller, with a legal team of “all stars” and “professionals” was greeted with glee, as if indicting, convicting, and impeaching Donald Trump was a certainty in our age of leaks and fake news.
Few in the thumbs-up/thumbs-down Internet arena of rumor and innuendo asked whether the charges were based on solid evidence, or whether Mueller’s much heralded investigatory team was geographically, ideologically, and politically diverse and disinterested. Now, after months of meted-out Internet justice, it appears that the electronic mob rushed to judgment.
Ironically, it may be more likely that the proverbial police themselves needed policing now that congressional investigations, subpoenas, and hearings have shed light on a growing number of conflict of interest disclosures among Mueller’s legal team. The fountainhead of the Russian collusion frenzy, the so-called Steele Fusion//GPS dossier, may not only be a concocted fraud, but may also have served as the basis for obtaining FISA grants for surveillance sweeps that resulted in the unmasking and leaking of the names of American citizens to the public.
No matter. The electronic judge and jury have already moved on from the serious charge of “collusion,” the original reason why a special counsel was appointed, to a quite different accusation of “obstruction.” Soon “obstruction” may be superseded by some new Internet-fueled allegation that will be promulgated and adjudicated in mere seconds.
The recent statue-removal craze is similar, although the frenzy turns against the dead rather than the living.
To the degree Americans pay much attention to the statues in their midst, they mostly ignore that the monuments were erected by prior generations for reasons with which they are now mostly unfamiliar or unconcerned. Yet within a few hours, it seemed, the Civil War was being refought over mute stones and bronzes. Confederate statues, once suddenly rediscovered, were torn down, defaced, or removed to storage—rarely on a majority vote of a local legislative body or plebiscite, but often in the dead of night to preclude mass demonstrations and counter-protests.
No one seemed to know—or care—whether all Confederate grandees were equally responsible for slavery: Was Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, as bad, or half as bad, as Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. James Longstreet, or Stonewall Jackson? Instead, what apparently mattered in the national hysteria was that the representations of those who fought for a bad cause no longer deserved any public commemorations. As was true of the start of all iconoclastic movements—from those of the Romans and seventh-century Byzantine Church to the French Revolution—a certain madness swept the country, but now uniquely energized by Internet reporting and blogging. Then suddenly, this electronic frenzy ended in exhaustion as quickly as it had started, replaced by the sexual assault and the take-a-knee NFL player scandals.
Neither fads nor frenzies are novel, especially in participatory democracies and republics. Think of 19th-century séances and phrenology to 20th-century hula-hoops and pet rocks. Collective outrage can arise when there are no real offenders (the Salem Witch trials), some culprits (the Red Scare of the 1950s), or plenty of genuinely culpable predators (the recent spate of celebrity sexual harassment accusations).
In our contemporary popular arena of electronic sensationalism, journalistic standards have suffered. All sources are equal. “Trending” means that a story, at least in its infancy, is crowding out its competitors by its juiciness, not necessarily its meticulous fact-checking. To suspend judgement until more evidence is known, to double- or triple-check a source, to cross-examine a witness—this is all to lose precious seconds of electronic time or to let off a suspect deemed already guilty. Audit is defined by what 51 percent of readers click on at any moment.
Journalism schools have recalibrated ethics and professional standards largely through the lenses of race, class, and gender considerations, rather than traditional professional codes of conduct or an education in moral sensibility. That may explain the current epidemic of fake news and plagiarism that sweeps the Internet. There are few repercussions for falsifying the news, inventing sources, or using foul language.
The Internet and social media have helped to democratize knowledge, give us more information for rational decision-making, and connect diverse people. But instant electronic communications are also fueling our worse human impulses.