Mass Hysteria, Twitter and the Fate of West Side Story

Just because they tell you to sit down and shut up does not mean you have to

[My “day job” is as the founding editor of AwardsDaily.com, a website that follows the Oscar race. This is a crosspost from a piece written there]

It won’t be easy for West Side Story to withstand the blow it was dealt when anonymous accusations surfaced this week. Steven Spielberg’s hotly anticipated movie, scheduled to open just before Christmas, will now face intense scrutiny about the alleged behavior of its male lead six years ago. A girl’s painful confession on Twitter blew up, and though all her social media accounts have now been deleted there is no stopping this story. She says she still has panic attacks and PTSD over what she describes as an incident of sexual assault. Ansel Elgort maintains it was a consensual affair and has issued an apology for the way he ended it crudely and thoughtlessly, but no matter what happens next, his life and career will suffer incalculable damage. [Note: This post has been updated to reflect recent developments.]

The effect this will have on West Side Story is hard to assess at this point, and much will depend on whether any more clarity is ever forthcoming. All the artists involved in the film, from the cast to the designers to the writers to the director will need to deal with seeing all their hard work and sense of pride tainted. That’s the kind of massive collateral damage inflicted when one person can wield a keyboard for retribution in the era we’re living through, right? At this point, despite Twitter’s instantaneous condemnation of Elgort, there does exist due process in this country, and any credible accusations of assault must be investigated before it’s possible to determine whether or not charges should be brought.

But Steven Spielberg will be asked to comment. Every actor involved will be asked to comment about a guy whom they’ve just worked with on a film. Every person will be asked to “confess” whether they stand with the movie and with Elgort or with the alleged victim. Every time it will be a story. Anyone who defends him will be treated to waves of abuse that might threaten their careers.

The reaction resulted in full-blown panic with minutes as the news spread like wildfire and becoming an instant trending topic. But as happens with humans amidst panic, the story began to shift and grow and intensify. When the story broke on Twitter it was on the heels of another story about Elgort, wherein an anonymous Instagrammer claims “Ansel” used the n-word one day as a teenager in high school. So that means he was then a racist pedophile rapist.

It was on that last point that my mind stuck. As people on [AwardsDaily] know, I’ve been pissing people off for years in my defense of Nate Parker, and have, at various times advocated for the work of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski not to be erased. I have friends who have been accused of assault. To me, redemption matters, forgiveness matters, humanity matters and above all, the truth matters. This doesn’t seem to bother others, who can keep quiet, keep their head down and wait for the storm to pass. Allow people their freak outs, their trauma and their reactions. But we’re living through an odd moment in our culture where every day someone new is hauled out for the public to render judgment. It is a behavior pattern as old as humans themselves. And the main reason Jesus ever had to say at all, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” But judge we do. Condemn we do. Careers don’t matter. Reputations don’t matter. The only thing that matters is that mob justice must prevail.

The last thing that is going to matter in this case is Steven Spielberg’s high profile remake of West Side Story, which was written by Tony Kushner and was expected to be one of the year’s strongest Oscar contenders. In the case of this kind of allegation, Twitter responds with their own trauma relived like a fresh wound.

But were they right? Was Ansel Elgort now a “racist pedophile rapist”? I wasn’t going to touch two out of three of those. Was it rape? Was he a racist? But the one thing I knew for sure was that he most certainly, not by any definition of the word, could be called a pedophile. Twitter has a way of pushing ordinary terms to extremes because this gets more attention on Twitter and thus, the algorithm pushes it to the top of anyone’s feed where it grows and eventually becomes an accepted reality.

I already knew the definition of “pedophile” but I looked it up again just to be precise. I thought, Elgort is being accused of assault by a young woman who was 17 at the time. Was that legally the age of consent? Depends on the state. If not, then she is a minor and consent is no longer an issue. If she is the age of consent and over, she appears to have fully consented to sex with him but hated it. Hated him by the end of it. Felt abused and used. Does that make him an asshole or does it make him a rapist? That isn’t for me to decide. It’s for a prosecutor to decide. If it was assault, then by all means she ought to have a prosecutor look into it. But she took it to Twitter instead and now has mostly disappeared.

None of this was anything I wanted to bring up yesterday. Ansel Elgort followed me on Twitter way back when I was praising Baby Driver. But I do not know him and I’m not friends with him. The one thing I know until proof is provided otherwise, he is not a pedophile.

Not by the legal definition, not by the cultural definition. No doctor or prosecutor or psychologist would make that claim yet this was being spread on Twitter with reckless abandon, and no one had the guts to stand up to it and say, “it’s false.” Call him a rapist if he is one, a racist if there’s any evidence — but he isn’t a pedophile for having sex with a 17-year-old. One major reason that matters is that pedophiles are murdered in prison — a lunatic broke into a pizza place in 2016 with a machine gun believing Hillary was running a child sex ring in the basement.

I watched the situation unfold knowing that to say anything I would be greeted by an angry mob. But they’d sort of been leaving me alone for a while after the worst abuse I’ve ever received on Twitter for criticizing Little Women died down. I knew I should probably do what most people do, just shut up and wait for it to be over. But I’ve been reading books on social media, and how it has manipulated and impacted our brains, driving us slowly crazy and into a state of oppressive self-censorship.

Here is an excerpt from a book called The People vs. Tech: How the Internet is Ruining Democracy and How We Can Save it:

There is another more subtle threat from Little Brother’s constant surveillance and data sharing. Back in the eighteenth century, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (of whom more later) proposed a new type of prison, which he called a ‘panopticon’. It was designed so that all the inmates could potentially be observed by a single watchman — without any knowledge of when they were being watched. The possibility alone was enough, thought Bentham, to ensure that everyone behaved. Our modern panopticon doesn’t have just one watchman: everyone is both watching and being watched. This kind of permanent visibility and monitoring is a way to enforce conformity and docility. Being always under surveillance and knowing that the things but don’t post, for fear of the angry Twitter mob, the data collectors, a nosy employer or the hordes of professional offence-takers who shark around the net waiting to be upset.

This is damaging to the citizen’s ability to exercise moral judgement in their lives. Developing the faculties to think for oneself requires that people say controversial things, make mistakes and learn from them. But social media creates a strange form of performative politics, where we all act out certain roles and acceptable public responses (this idea is bad! This person is good!), which limits the room for genuine personal growth. 16 For example, the ability to forget is an important part of self-development, because changing one’s mind is how we are able to mature and grow. As an increasing number of people — both famous and not — have found to their cost, digital technology never forgets. Sometimes that has the benefit of uncovering powerful people’s motives and prejudices. But when one idiotic remark made on a forum when you were young and ill-informed exists forever, and can be dug up and republished exactly as it was, more and more people will conclude it is safer just to never say anything. This is not a good environment for the development of healthy, thinking adults.

Self-censorship, not saying what you know to be true is damaging to democracy, and to the human psyche. So I decided to poke the beast and try to correct the record — no, he isn’t a pedophile, I tweeted. For the next four or five hours I was greeted with an overwhelming landslide of abusive tweets.

By the end of the day, the Oscar trivia zoom chat scheduled for today had to be cancelled as one of the members “felt uncomfortable” appearing on it with me and two of the members bowed out, feigning an excuse of some sort. For their part, David Poland, Marshall Flores, and Clarence Moye backed me up and said they would not do the Oscar zoomcast without me — and others would have probably gone through with it, but since Film Twitter was the main source of offense, some felt their reputations were put in jeopardy just for associating with someone who states a fact on Twitter.

I’ve been hated passionately by many of the members of Film Twitter, the height of which came when I disagreed about their praise of Little Women, or defended Joker. I have lost long friendships over the years for various offenses like my defense of Three Billboards and Green Book. That I prefer to think for myself is one of my biggest problems on social media, which discourages independent thought and encourages conformity.

I’ve been online since 1994 and throughout most of that time the internet was a place for free thinkers and new ideas. The only potential oppression we feared was intervention by the government or by corporations who might have deemed whatever people were writing as objectionable. It was on these basic principles most forums, blog comment sections, opinion sections, and social media platforms were based. Leave it to the people to decide. While hate speech was disallowed and many websites policed both their comment sections and forums, there were places that were self-policed, like Reddit, wherein admins of various forums will lay down strict rules of engagement. But for sites like Twitter and Facebook, barring extreme abusive language and overt threats of violence, they believe in freedom of expression.

It was a noble idea, I suppose, when you don’t factor in what their algorithms are designed to do. And what they’re doing is slowly driving us all insane. There are three books on the subject that I’ve been reading lately as I’m doing research for a project. In Jaron Lanier’s 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Right Now he lays out how those designing these engagement sites knew that the key to them is the dopamine hit. If there is even a slight delay when you open your Twitter, or Instagram in seeing the responses to your post or tweet your brains craves the anticipated dopamine hit. If you were ignored, you get a dip in your dopamine level, which causes you to work harder to gain back what was lost.

Here is a quote by Sean Parker, former President of Facebook, as quoted by Lanier:

“We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.… It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.…

The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously.

And we did it anyway … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other.… It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.

He then quotes Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook:

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.… No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.… I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds — even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of, we kind of knew something bad could happen.… So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”

In other words, they built the model that is actively destroying our brains by keeping us in a constant state of addiction. We crave the dopamine hit and will do anything to get it. But the problem is that along the way we’ve become vulnerable to mass hysteria without even realizing it.

In a study done at Warwick University on 150 or so subjects they found that bad news gets worse as it travels from person to person across social media platforms and inadvertently creates a wave of panic or hysteria. If you understand what this is, you will know that it removes logic, flattens compassion, and makes it easy to dehumanize others.

They also noticed that even when you introduce facts it doesn’t stop the panic from rising. What is happening to us is that we’re being manipulated by algorithms towards a kind of permanent chaos. Sam Harris has said that he believes we are all collectively losing touch with reality because by now truth doesn’t really matter. Truth is only what the tribe concludes that it is. Facts are only allowed if they are acceptable. If they aren’t, they are tossed.

Dehumanization is how the people of Salem watched as a village brought to its knees by a handful of adolescent girls hanged about 20 people, including a four-year-old girl and two dogs. It is how throughout Germany and Sweden and France they burned so-called witches as the townspeople stood by and cheered. They burned children. Old women. Animals. They believed that the Devil was working through them and they saw them as less than human.

Fear and hysteria is what drives dehumanization. It is how Hitler was able to order the removal of all Jews from Germany and send them to the gas chambers. Even if the Germans didn’t know they were being sent to die they certainly saw how their lives were obliterated, their property and wealth seized and how they were sent away from the homes they made. They had been taught to be afraid of the Jews to the point where they could be dehumanized.

The problem with hysteria is that people become afraid to speak up. The only way to stop it is, in fact, to brave the mob and help pierce the bubble of hysteria BY SPEAKING UP. In Salem, a Quaker named Thomas Maule had written critically about the witch trials and he was the only one who had the courage to do so. For that, his books were burned and he was put in jail for a year. But he continued to defy them and eventually he is one of the main reasons for America’s commitment to both freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

Now look at where we are in 2020. Look at how many editors have resigned or been fired or been pushed out. Someone was fired for tweeting out data that upset Twitter. If it upsets Twitter it isn’t supposed to be said or written or reported on because no one wants to upset Twitter because you see what happens when you do. This is what is being called “safetyism” wherein fear of trauma or panic results in oppression or suppression of the truth because the truth is something people seem unable to tolerate.

My advice: brave the mob. Speak up. Speak out. Mute conversations and block block block. And if people do to you what they just did to me in the name of righteousness? Take screenshots. Write a story. Put it down for the record and for history — this is what happened.

The truth has to be told whether it threatens the status quo or not. If journalists can’t be supported to tell that truth, who will?

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