Never mind the quality, feel the width
A few months ago I wrote a piece bemoaning an increasing tendency towards weak guilt-by-association smears to close off debate. This approach can sometimes be a shortcut to taking an opponent’s arguments off the table, and a seductive one in today’s increasingly complex and confusing information landscape, when we all need reliable ways to filter signal from noise. If someone is bad, and another person is connected to them or says what looks like the same things as them, those things must also be bad and can therefore be distrusted or ignored.
What we’ve seen in recent years online is an explosion in the tactic of rendering someone untouchable by pointing to what may be singular events, in or out of context, and holding them up as representative of that person’s entire character and output over time. Rendering complex, whole individuals as simplistic avatars of “good” or “bad” opinions, and then going a step further to treating this as a transitive property, engaging in cancellation-by-association. A tweet someone did once is claimed to be bad, therefore they are definitively, irredeemably bad now, and were in fact always bad, through the action of guilt tachyons projecting backward through time, and anyone who hasn’t already denounced them is also bad forever, and so on. Someone went on the wrong TV programme, did an interview with the wrong newspaper, stood next to the wrong Youtuber, liked the wrong facebook post, or supported the wrong person’s claim of workplace discrimination.
This tendency comes from a sort of paranoia that people’s words and deeds are not what they seem, and are cover for “real” bad opinions that are only accessible through close reading and assembly of cherry-picked evidence whereupon the “true” picture will emerge.
And because nothing in the world is neat, sometimes this is true, and sometimes it isn’t, and all variations in between. It is difficult and time-consuming to tell the difference between them, and even harder to spot when our own bias is leading us to ignore contrary evidence in favour of focusing on the “true” picture underneath.
We live in a time where there is widespread belief that people have a “true” identity inside just waiting to be affirmed, irrespective of any conflicts with material reality. If you accept that, how far fetched is it to treat missteps, or hardening of opinion as someone “coming out” as a bad person? That people don’t really change their opinions, merely affirm what was already there? A screenshot exists of you saying a supposedly bad thing, once, and that is who you are, forever.
This search for scraps of evidence that reveal hidden truth - that can explain past events as not mere chance but nefarious design all along - is a fast route into conspiracism. Unfortunately, we increasingly live in online bubbles where what information we see comes via social networks that ingrain our bias and make us ever more likely to give weight to illusory patterns. Our communication systems are geared to arranging evidence before our eyes - real or imagined - to hold our attention, to outrage us, to make us form emotional attachments to the patterns we think we see there. It is easy to think that those patterns are all that exists, and forget the humanity of those behind them.
There is danger in surrounding yourself with obsessives who relentlessly seize upon cherry-picked events to build as damning a picture as possible of their opponents, and spread blame for this inhuman caricature far and wide. In today’s world, swamped by algorithmically recommended and socially weighted content, this can have a profound effect on how you see the world, fostering an environment where unforgiving snap judgements and worst possible interpretations of circumstantial evidence are rewarded with social adulation.
Worse, these digital systems present the words of many disparate individuals as part of an apparently unified whole, and the slip to assigning shared guilt to some nebulous they becomes an easy one. Fragments of many different people’s digital presence seized upon and drawn into the pattern, assembled across time, all becoming part of the big picture. Those responsible cease to be considered people in their own right, but a connected web of influence, cynically or unknowingly propagating harmful tropes.
Where perhaps only circumstantial or weak criticism may be levelled against any one individual, they can be aggregated with other accusations to create the appearance of a pattern across all of them. It doesn’t even matter if no single event ever passes the threshold for actual evidence of wrongdoing - put enough together and it is entirely human to think that the weight of numbers are enough to raise suspicion. Skipping the step of building a solid case of individual wrongdoing, instead the pattern emerges in the accumulation of screenshots and quotes and video clips from multiple people that individually prove nothing, but in aggregate create the illusion of an overwhelming case to answer by a “community”. Though each could be challenged on merit, or lack of real connection, the sheer volume makes that task impossible.
This is the evidence equivalent of Collateralized Debt Obligations filled with subprime mortgages: lots of pieces of evidence of varying degrees of reliability against different people pooled together to create the impression of a rock-solid case against all of them. The shift in focus from the individual to “them”, where anything that can be selectively presented against any one - shorn of any context or explanation - becomes an accusation against all.
All of which is deeply dehumanising, treating ideological opponents not as real, fallible human beings, but as evil placeholders, interchangeable and indistinguishable, whose every alleged slip reveals not only their bad faith, but that of the imagined “they” as a whole.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine being blamed for a screenshot of someone else’s worst tweet – for ever.