The Sacrificial Tweet

A single misstep on social media comes at a high price these days. And yet we’re being asked to speak up louder and more frequently against injustice. What are we willing to sacrifice to keep posting?

Just before the end of 2019, Rohit Chopra lost his Twitter account. The Santa Clara University associate professor of communication had finally gone too far. Since 2014, Chopra had been satirically stirring the already boiling pot of political discourse of his home country of India, primarily through the handle @IndiaExplained to more than 70,000 followers. He was particularly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his supporters for the rise of Hindu nationalism at the expense of religious and cultural minorities.

Chopra was used to the rage his anti-Modi posts inflamed. And yet he continued poking over and over Modi supporters in both India and the U.S. in the name of speaking out against what he believed to be profound injustice, even when some would threaten violence.

Free speech gif
Does anyone really know all the potential consequences of clicking “send” on any given post or response on social media? / Illustrations by Kyle Harter. Gif by Imgflip.

He’d tried to report the aggressor accounts before, but was dismissed. Threatening language used online is notoriously hard to prove actually malicious, after all, and much of it is bundled haphazardly under the umbrella of free speech protections.

So Chopra was surprised when Twitter actually acted, suspending his account and asking him to delete speech less corrosive than the death threats he’d received. His last tweets, Chopra says, were written in parody of far-right Hindu nationalists’ celebration of vigilante justice and violence, and Twitter only intervened when pressured by an IT cell working on behalf of the Indian government.

Acquiescing and deleting the offending posts in order to access the social media platform one more time, Chopra made a statement blasting what he saw as Twitter’s hypocrisy for allowing violent threats by supporters of India’s ruling party but not dissent. Twitter, Chopra notes, “hid behind the fig leaf of free speech in refusing to act on complaints against death and rape threats that adherents of the Hindu Right routinely issued but conveniently—and inconsistently—invoked ‘community standards’ to shut down speech critical of [India’s ruling party].” He was further puzzled by his account’s suspension given that Twitter itself had earlier sent him a message confirming that the tweets did not violate those same community standards.

“I was making a political point, that Twitter in India was hypocritical because they were hiding behind free speech to allow people to make vile threats,” he says. “Nothing I said violated free speech law, yet I was cast out.”

Like many other social scientists, Chopra thinks “cancel culture”—used to describe the phenomenon of being publicly shamed and losing status for saying things or acting in ways deemed problematic or offensive by society at large—is lazy terminology, much too one-size-fits all to accurately represent the myriad ways public commentary has evolved as it’s moved online.

But it’s also true that Chopra was, quite literally, canceled. Or at least access to his favorite app-based soapbox was.

To speak our mind is a right, yes. But it may, and often does, come at a cost. What are each of us OK sacrificing in order to stand up for what we hold dear? And has it become costlier?

He says it was a risk he was willing to run. “Being politically active means risking something,” Chopra says, noting that in addition to a popular Twitter account he’s also lost friends due to differences in their values and viewpoints.

Living and participating in a democracy does not make you immune to this kind of loss. It happened to Chopra over politics in India, the world’s largest democracy. And it happens here in America, where the First Amendment (and freedom of expression therein) holds court over all other liberties in the Constitution.

To speak our mind is a right, yes. But it may, and often does, come at a cost.

What are each of us OK sacrificing in order to stand up for what we hold dear? And has it become costlier to speak up in the Information Age? Have the stakes risen as we’ve become more reliant on social media to vocalize our viewpoints, reaching more people in less time? Is steady employment worth your silence? Friendship? Your relationship to family?

“It’s for everyone to negotiate with themselves,” says Chopra, “what they’re willing to lose.”

WHO’S AT THE TABLE?

“Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it,” said Samuel Johnson, a prominent 18th century British writer and dictionarian. Johnson could not conceive how fitting his succinct appraisal of the concept of free speech and its inherent consequences would remain nearly three centuries after his death. Yet here we are, when the quip still applies even as much of our communication—with each other, with political and societal leaders, with corporations—has moved into the virtual realm. Maybe even more so.

You may have the right to say what you want in a tweet or a Facebook post (within reason; although incitement of violence is especially dicult to prove), but know that doing so could seriously irk others. Ironically, the very impersonal nature of internet-facilitated speech often results in people taking that speech much more personally.

“When we’re online, it’s really easy to say things that we wouldn’t say in a face-to-face setting. Social media is like alcohol in terms of it being a social lubricant,” says Stephanie Tikkanen, an adjunct lecturer in SCU’s Department of Communication who studies the growing role of new media in interpersonal relationships. “You might say something more cruel or you might say something that’s more vulnerable.”

There’s also context collapse, which really muddies the waters of online interactions. Imagine you’re throwing a dinner party, and you invite a coworker, your cousin, your college roommate, and your dentist. Not only will you struggle to find conversation topics that appeal to everyone, you’ll also be performing an internal juggling act of different facets of your personality—your professional mode, your familial mode, etc. “Which ‘you’ are you going to present?” Tikkanen asks. “That’s kind of how Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are.” Everyone—friends, friends of friends, family, and strangers alike—is at the same table.

It’s no wonder, then, that interpersonal conflict over what we say online is seemingly increasing, especially when considering how the coronavirus pandemic has shifted even more of our contact with the outside world to the digital realm.

“Maybe people are feeling more free to say stuff that rebukes a family member because, realistically, they’re probably not going to see them in person this Thanksgiving.” It’d be much harder to fight with your aunt at the dinner table than it would be to disagree with the meme she just posted and respond with six links that prove it wrong. Plus, perhaps more people are now willing to sacrifice some measure of comfort and wade into the cesspool of social media conflict because “they see it as a matter of life and death.”

This could explain the proliferation of posts pleading with people to wear masks, as recommended by the World Health Organization to help curb the spread of COVID-19, and the shaming of those people who refuse to do so in the name of individual liberty.

Free Speech Comic by Kyle Harter
Free Speech Comic 2 by Kyle Harter

In a more philosophical sense, it also spotlights those people once relatively quiet on social media who are now posting relentlessly about racism and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. Or, posts in support of law enforcement and against riots and looting. “If I don’t post this article/meme/photo that symbolically declares my support, then my silence could be viewed as tacit acceptance of [fill in the blank],” they seem to be saying.

To Julia Voss, associate professor of English who teaches composition and researches digital literacy, there’s something about what’s happening online that signals an end to mandated polite discourse that was drilled into her growing up in a middle class, primarily white community. “If there’s anything to which people have such passionate reaction, then that’s something we shouldn’t talk about in the interest of politeness,” she summarizes. Paradoxically, this mandate was issued as a way to rein in conduct by the group that’s long held the most power, with direct access to the mic: affluent white people.

The downfall of this sort of gentility is not something Voss is particularly sad about. “I’m working hard on being more confrontational.”

Consequently, Voss has become very critical of tone policing on social media, defined as attempts to shut down debate by attacking a statement for the emotion it was presented with instead of the message itself. This tactic of telling someone, “If you can’t be polite and distant and non-confrontational then you can’t talk about it at all effectively dismisses so many people [historically ostracized from the conversation]—women, people of color, etc.,” she says. “Of course people who are directly affected by injustice tend to be passionate about it.”

As a white woman and tenured professor, Voss says she feels it’s a kind of personal responsibility from her position of safety and privilege to be “much more deliberate and willing to take heat from people for saying publicly and explicitly the things that I think and feel—about racial injustice, LGBTQ rights—and social media gives me opportunity to do so in front of people I don’t see that often.” This includes a few relatives who unfriended her on Facebook after she challenged their posts about undocumented immigrants.

Even a few months ago, Voss says she may not have said anything, just rolled her eyes and screenshotted a comment she found ignorant in order to share in private. But after conversations with colleagues and friends of color, she realized that if they feel constant pressure to speak up against injustice because no one else historically has, then she should start shouldering some of that burden if she wants to be a true ally. “It’s a moral imperative that the things I’m saying in private, I say in public.”

CANCELED

In early July, 153 prominent writers and thought leaders signed an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine decrying what they call a constricting of the “free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society.” Signees were plotted across the political spectrum; antiwar scholar Noam Chomsky and conservative opinion writer Bari Weiss—who later resigned from The New York Times because she felt bullied for her views—both signed. They all criticized the cultural trends of intolerance for opposing views and public shaming for these dierences in favor of “ideological conformity” and “blinding moral certainty.”

In other words: cancel culture.

The letter drew both applause and ire, and ignited a debate over whether the mythical woke police—digital warriors intent on destroying the livelihoods of anyone who’s committed a politically incorrect transgression—have gone too far. Or are even real.

“There is some stuff to agree with in the letter,” says Santa Clara associate professor of communication Sreela Sarkar who teaches courses on media and social movements.

But there’s a context problem, she says. It was written during a pandemic and global economic recession, and a national reckoning over racial injustice.

“The Harper letter ignored the material realities and oppressions that marginalized groups have faced historically and in this moment,” Sarkar says. “I think when we talk about this becoming too much—online codes of conduct, cancel culture—it’s important to note that people of color and other marginalized groups have been making sacrifices for a long time… They’ve never really had the freedom to speak up without facing repercussions.”

Now that more people from more backgrounds are speaking up more often—with social media allowing for wider access to the podium—“it’s being perceived as a threat to the people who’ve been in power,” she says.

Still, it seems that a large swath of Americans do think cancel culture has gone too far.

A July poll from Politico put the number at 46 percent. However, less than that (40 percent of voters) say they’ve ever even participated in cancel culture, and it appears to fall along party and generational lines: Half of Democrats say they shared dislike of a public figure on social media compared to a third of Republicans; the young’uns of Generation Z and millennials are the most sympathetic to punishing people and institutions over views deemed oensive, while Gen-Xers and baby boomers are the most opposed.

Some of these differences can be understood by examining the variations in moral reasoning between people with different political ideologies, a field of study called Moral Foundations Theory.

“Basically, Democrats and Republicans tend to endorse different sets of morals,” says SCU assistant professor of psychology Kathryn Bruchmann, who studies this: Democrats tend to care more about the morals of fairness or justice, and preventing harm of others, while Republicans tend to prioritize morals such as loyalty to their community, respect for authority, and spiritual purity.

“These differences in morals can explain why people on both sides of the aisle feel that they are doing the morally right thing” when speaking out against perceived wrongdoing, even if they run the risk of being “canceled.”

Bruchmann says if she were to speculate, chances are good that at this moment in history, moral lines are being crossed for folks on both sides when using social media to publicly declare which “side” they belong to.

“For people who prioritize preventing harm for others, police brutality seems to have violated this moral with a point of no return,” she says, referring to this summer’s protests against racial injustice and calls to defund the police. “But for people who prioritize respect for authority, their morals have also likely been violated with violent protests, vandalism, and looting as a response.”

Right now, political groups—or at least the morals and values they stand for—might matter more to one’s identity than their family or friends.

Hence, we’re more willing to post that thing we know may anger some of our Facebook followers. “I can’t help but think,” Bruchmann says, “that this is happening because we are becoming more and more polarized on what we all feel are moral issues.”

KEEPING TALKING

Trying to find someone who has never posted or liked something online that could be seen as offensive by someone else is a fool’s errand. When posting this meme or liking that tweet, we aren’t fully conscious of making a choice that could blow up our personal or professional lives.

“Often, on social media, people don’t have a clear sense of who their audience is,” says Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Studies have shown that Facebook users, for example, underestimate greatly the number of people who actually see their posts.” A 2013 report from Facebook and Stanford University showed the average user guessed about 20 friends saw their post, but the actual number was about four times that.

This lack of awareness of our audience size—particularly among private citizens—means we might feel less inhibited to post things that could be considered controversial by people whose morals differ from ours, including our employers or family members. Unlike at Thanksgiving dinner, we cannot see who’s seated at the table with us on Facebook.

“Those who lose jobs or friendships as a result of their comments are often surprised by those outcomes,” Raicu says. Furthermore, interactions on social media platforms (especially among people who don’t know each other well or at all) “are often rapid-response, full of misunderstandings and judgmental takes based on too little information.”

Most people are not meditating on what their values are in the first place. “Thoughtfully adopting a principled stance and expressing it to the world, fully aware of the consequences that the public expression might lead to, might constitute a kind of sacrifice,” Raiku says. “But that is not what typically happens in social media interactions.”

Free Speech Half page illustration by Kyle Harter

In 1644, the great English poet John Milton penned one of history’s finest defenses of the freedom of speech, likening the exchange of ideas to a harvest. Arguing against a printing ordinance that required authors to get prior approval from the government before publishing their words, Milton asked, “Should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light spring up and yet springing daily in this city?”

He denounced this kind of censorship as bringing “famine upon our minds again” as what was allowed to be written and therefore thought about, talked about, argued about could only be measured against what the few in power deemed acceptable. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” he said.

It seems, on the internet at least, that we’ve fulfilled Milton’s edict: Online we argue ad nauseum over what each of us believes to be right.

Social media created incredible equity—a high school dropout and the President of the United States have access to the same platform from which to shout. This freedom allows each of us to speak, to contribute to the discourse.

In this way, freedom of expression is not so much requiring us to sacrifice as it is requiring us to participate.

So what are we willing to give up in order to speak up about our values and defend them in the public discourse? Or as assistant professor of communication David Jeong puts it, what if we ask not what we’re willing to give up, but what we are willing to give?

Think about it in terms of charity, says Jeong, who studies the ethical implications of human interaction on social media platforms, algorithms, and virtual environments.

“Could we sacrifice a portion of our pay to save a life, or to bring about the necessary conditions to save a life?” he says of one function of social charities—to support social causes through financial means. “I suppose it’s one way to frame sacrifice as a loss, another—to the charity—as a gain.”

Though not a public figure with a vast social media following, Jeong says he’s aware that his position—as an academic, as male, etc.—holds certain privilege and power. And we all know what comes with great power.

“I do not take this privilege as something that belongs to me solely and outright,” he says. It’s his “obligation to ‘give’ as much as I am capable to ‘speak up about our values and defend them in the public discourse.’” It’s a sharing of power so that others may speak up, too.

Social media created incredible equity—a high school dropout and the President of the United States have access to the same platform from which to shout. This freedom allows each of us to speak, to contribute to the discourse. In this way, freedom of expression is not so much requiring us to sacrifice as it is requiring us to participate.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, Jeong says. Some costs of wielding your freedom to speak out against perceived unethical conduct, immoral acts, and injustice online are real while others are imagined. And not all sacrifice is equal.

A public figure’s loss of a few hundred followers for tweeting an unpopular opinion is not the same as a father losing his relationship to his son for retweeting it. On the other hand, such sacrifice may be “worth it” if positive change occurs.

We’ve already got the liberty to argue freely according to our conscience. Now it’s up to each of us to determine what we’re willing to give to continue the conversation.

Corrections [Sept. 23, 2020]: This article has been updated to clarify the context of the suspension of Associate Professor Rohit Chopra’s Twitter account. As printed, the earlier version did not specify that the tweets in question were parodies of calls to violence and vigilante justice made by supporters of India’s Hindu nationalist government, or that Twitter had previously determined that his tweets did not violate community standards.

This article has been updated to clarify comments from Associate Professor Sreela Sarkar, and now include the quote, “The Harper letter ignored the material realities and oppressions that marginalized groups have faced historically and in this moment.” Previous commentary suggesting that people are more concerned with getting sick, losing jobs or housing, or being profiled by police than of being canceled online was made by the author, and should not attributed to Sarkar.

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