The twitter storm is driven by a similar spirit to Isis’ destruction of ancient monuments. Both pretend to have a principled motivation, but this is just a guise: the actual content is only the drive to destroy, to bring something hallowed low.
The life of an individual such as Nobel laureate Tim Hunt took time and work to build, with an accretion over the years of discoveries, achievements, reputation. A person’s life is just as much a work as an ancient monument. A twitter storm or scandal drives towards the destruction a person, for them to be – in Hunt’s words – ‘finished’, ‘toxic’. To lose their jobs, their honours, ideally their family and friends.
This has an element of sport, and is often discussed as such. Tim Hunt’s casting out from University College London was heralded as a ‘moment to saviour’. A previous storm targeting PR executive Justine Sacco was described as the best moment of 2013: people stayed up to see the conclusion, they skipped parties and dates. ‘I was piling on for sport’, said one of Slate’s writers, reflecting on his reasons for joining another ‘outrage-fueled pig pile’. This is the human drama of a person being ruined.
What is striking is that the person is not generally being ruined for what they believed, or for a deliberate action, but for a joke, aside or an innuendo: it is the informal moment that is the focus for the storm. It is notable that ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ twitter storms tend to target individuals who are not actually racist or sexist.
There would be no sport in targeting the actual racists or the actual outcasts. Part of the frisson is the fact that this person is unsuspecting: that their life is turned upside down suddenly, without warning, and they do not really know why. There is sporting tension in the dissonance between how they might see themselves, and how they are now being seen by others. Hence the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet, which trended across the world after Sacco made a joke about AIDS then boarded a 13-hour flight to South Africa. The crowd had this insight over her, that she was ruined and did not yet know it, and the moment of her realisation was savoured as a climax, a clash of drums.
The victim of such events cannot sit back like a ruined hero at the end of a Greek tragedy and say ‘the fault was mine’. This person is not bearing the consequences of their beliefs, standing and falling on ideas that are actually in conflict with society as a whole.
The individual targeted in a twitter storm was condemned not by their actions, but by the image of themselves that had been created in the storm. Their actual life, their actual opinions or beliefs are of no interest or consequence. The storm can turn black into white and white into black, and indeed this is part of the power at play.
There was a case of a woman complaining about bongos who was the subject of tweets accusing her of being a white yuppie moaning about black people. She said that she was black and the bongo player was white. The response was ‘I don’t know whether you are white or not’;‘forever publicly shamed on Twitter LOL … #whitetears.’ For the purposes of twitter she had been made white, because that is what she needed to be.
Individuals here are only a vehicle for the negative mobilisation. They are human material against which others are defining themselves: it is not about them, but about the needs and perspective of the storm. This is why any attempt at self-justification will make matters worse. ‘Just don’t engage’, one former victim of a storm advised another: be ‘an inert bundle of molecules’. Anything you say will be a sign of life, and therefore an incitement: you aren’t dead yet?
The subject matter of a twitter storm doesn’t make sense before the storm has begun, when there is puzzlement, or after, when there is regret. There is a regular cycle of stages. It is only in the moment of somebody being destroyed that the matter takes on its particular frame. Before and after, a lame joke is just a lame joke. Only in the eye of the storm does it take on this question of grand principle and provide the focus for such unleashing of negative energies.
The dynamic of the storm is a moment of collective mobilisation, an expression of collective subjectivity, at a time when more grounded forms of political mobilisation have gone. The collective cannot any longer be constituted positively, substantively, towards any particular positive end. Instead, it is constituted only at the point of the annihilation of an individual. This is how people stake a point of principle and are part of making something happen.
The collective exists only in the moment when a person is being ruined, just as the terrorists’ Islamic principle exists only at the moment when the columns are crashing down.
University College London’s behaviour in the Tim Hunt scandal was indicative: the university cut him loose with a decisive swipe. He was toxic and the institution didn’t hesitate to remove itself from any implication or contamination. Strikingly, when Sacco’s media company sacked her, the company nonetheless said something in her defence: ‘We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.’ The company made the distinction between the person they knew, and the person created as the projection of public outrage. What institutions universities have become, what hollow machines, to show less solidarity towards their Nobel laureate than a media company does towards one of its own.
The same patterns have long been seen in newspaper scandals, where it is also the case that the further the fall, the better the sport. Hence the delight at government ministers brought down for misdemeanors such as speeding points and rows with police officers. ‘The man who fell to earth’, read the headlines after cabinet minister Chris Huhne was convicted of passing on speeding points to his wife. The drive of a scandal is to bring the mighty low, the mask crashing to the floor.
When acts of destruction provide the confirmation of the self and collective, this leads to a new barbarism. It was this barbarian-narcissist culture that, watching a man landing a probe on a comet, focused on the fact that he had scantily dressed women on his shirt. The scientist was humbled by the reaction, reduced to tears. A man is landing a probe on a comet and he is made to cry because of the shirt he is wearing.
When the individual is reduced to human material for others, things of substantial and lasting value are cast away as if they were nothing. Immunology is sacrificed on a joke, meteorology on a shirt. We may look on with horror at Isis’ exploding columns, but really this isn’t a world away.