Inside the Panopticon

Panopticon exhibit. Lancashire, 2013.

Social media can be a minefield. Almost every action can be singled out for scrutiny at the click of a mouse. It feels like nothing is private anymore. Not even your stupid remarks or pitch-black jokes.

If sunlight is supposed to be the best disinfectant, you have to wonder what exactly is being disinfected. It’s almost as if the burning heat of light is meant to render a dangerous toxin ‘safe’. I wonder what ‘safe’ would even mean in this context. Perhaps it just means fangless. As if the fascists are only a threat to us if we try to silence them.

Sometimes it’s almost as if we’re living in a giant panopticon. A prison where everything can be seen and nothing is secret anymore. Yet this panopticon is even greater than anything ever imagined. It entrances its captive inhabitants, as well as its guards.

Never did I feel this so clearly as in my Twitter encounter with Maajid Nawaz, the director of the Quilliam Foundation. A friend of mine was due to debate some guys from Spiked along with Nawaz at the Oxford Union. The subject was safe spaces and free speech. When I saw this post on my friend’s Facebook wall, I joked: “I hope you slaughter them.”

It was a crass joke, a dark joke. Not a very funny one at that. I was thinking of something Christopher Hitchens once said. He was describing a public debate with a panel of religious types. “We massacred them,” he said. “We left them for dead.”

Taken out of context, we might mistake Hitch’s words for a threat if we were particularly stingy with interpretation. My usage of ‘slaughter’ meant defeat, not kill.

Perhaps if it had ended there, it would have been alright. Unfortunately, another person responded with the comment: “LITERALLY SLAUGHTER THEM”. The caps are meant to imply a serious threat, or so I’m told. “No mercy, full halal,” I responded.

I even added a winking smiley to drive home that the comment was absolutely dead-serious. The truth was it was a stupid exchange made on a thread of otherwise benign and supportive comments. Even still, there’s no denying that what followed an exchange of crass and offensive jokes.

Of course, I shouldn’t have said it and I wouldn’t have had I knew it would have jeopardised the debate. Indeed, Maajid Nawaz was sent a screenshot of the comments and he withdrew from the debate on the grounds that there had been death threats made. He soon took to Twitter to single me out, and I logged on to find hundreds of angry tweets directed at me.

At first, I couldn’t believe it. I was defensive, then I was apologetic but the tweets kept demanding more apologies. It was as if the apology didn’t matter, it wasn’t good enough. Saying sorry was taken as a sign of weakness if it was acknowledged at all. The stream of anger didn’t die down for a couple of days, and I was terrified I would lose my job if my boss found out.

Two years later, I wonder about the incident. It was definitely a lesson. Don’t say stupid things online. Pause for thought before commenting. Take more time typing before posting. I wish I could go back and stop myself, but I can’t and, in the eyes of some, I might always be tarnished for writing something idiotic on the internet. Certainly, no one else has ever done something so foolish.

Campus Wars

Putting aside my own failings, it’s worth thinking about the culture of public shaming that exists online. It may be useful as a corrective to excesses, and it might even be in the public interest on occasion, but this is not the only role it can play. So here I will explore a couple of recent cases of online public shaming and how far it can go.

Left-wing academic George Ciccariello-Maher was embroiled in a Twitter controversy manufactured by right-wing trolls. The academic jokingly tweeted: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide”. It wasn’t the wisest thing to tweet, but it was a joke at the expense of white nationalists.

Note the term ‘white genocide’ itself was invented to promote white nationalism. The tweet was mocking this hysterical paranoia about immigration and ‘race-mixing’, it was not a call for violence or ethnic cleansing. In Ciccariello-Maher’s own words:

On Christmas Eve, I sent a satirical tweet about an imaginary concept, “white genocide.” For those who haven’t bothered to do their research, “white genocide” is an idea invented by white supremacists and used to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies (and most recently, against a tweet by State Farm Insurance). It is a figment of the racist imagination, it should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.

Yet the tweet was seized upon as evidence of the professor’s racism by trolls, who knew full well it was a joke. The trolls began to bombard Drexel University with complaints against the professor. It wasn’t long before Drexel cowed to this display of phoney outrage and suspended Ciccariello-Maher, freezing his social media accounts.

Eventually, Ciccariello-Maher was reinstated at Drexel, only to be forced out of the university in December 2017 after a year-long campaign of death threats and online abuse. It’s worth remembering that this could happen to any of us. A throwaway remark can easily be misconstrued online. And before you know it, you have an electronic right-wing mob after you. But this was not an isolated incident.

In the summer of 2015, the media has been watching events at Goldsmiths University with a particularly close eye. What could’ve sparked such interest? It wasn’t the fastidious standards of contemporary art. Nor was it the occupation of Deptford Town Hall. Never mind the occupations at LSE, UAL and KCL. You would think that this is worthwhile news. But no, none of that!

It’s all down to Bahar Mustafa, the Welfare and Diversity Officer of Goldsmiths Student Union. Mustafa posted a Facebook message asking white men not to attend an event for black and ethnic minority women. The conservative elements of the student body quickly claimed she had ‘banned’ whites and men from the event. In actuality, Mustafa was organising a ‘safe space’ for non-white women, which was the real target of the backlash.

The situation soon escalated. Mustafa found herself excoriated for ironic tweets under the hashtag #killallwhitemen. A petition began to circulate calling for a confidence vote. The Tab was soon promoting the story and the right-wing press latched onto it. The Spectator The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, – the whole lot – all began running columns on Bahar Mustafa. It’s as if she embodied the imagined dominance of the left over social and cultural issues. The reactionaries crave this imagined enemy.

Soon a petition emerged condemning Mustafa for ‘hate speech’. The media gave it unwarranted coverage, yet in the end, just 165 students signed it. That’s a mere 1.9% of the student body out of more than 8,000 students. The rulebook requires 3% of the student body. So the push for a no-confidence vote was lost. All throughout Twitter the echoes of outrage could be heard. It was unstoppable.

Bad Jokes Aside

It may be that social media draws upon our own drives for obsessive frenzies of this kind. It may have exacerbated many of the worst tendencies our society has already nurtured.

More than 10 years ago, Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University thanks to a smear campaign. It was an unprecedented assault on academic freedom. The man behind it, Allen Dershowitz, had gone after Finkelstein, the son of two Holocaust survivors, because of his stalwart opposition to Israeli policy against the Palestinians.

Of course, there’s never just one reason. The fact that Finkelstein had exposed Dershowitz as a plagiarist may have had something to do with it. Yet it’s Finkelstein who has struggled to find work. That’s what happens when Google searches line up your name with ‘Holocaust denier’. This case also took place before the age of social media. So this is not something completely new.

It’s not funny when it costs you your job or your public reputation. Once your name becomes searchable on Google, all kinds of things can be attached to it. The associations are open to manipulation, and the results won’t necessarily be in your favour.

Photograph courtesy of philmikejones. Published under a Creative Commons license.