Last week, science journalist Erin Biba found herself under attack on Twitter. This is, of course, the natural state of things on social media, where people are bombarded with criticism, both mild and hateful, on a regular basis. But in this case, the instigator of her torment was celebrity inventor and Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. In a series of Tweets, Biba had called out Musk — who was then in the midst of a lengthy, Trumpian tirade about the untrustworthiness of the media — for irresponsibly abusing his considerable platform. He would ultimately end up proving her point.
“A billionaire w/massive power @elonmusk lashed out at two of the most under-attack industries in the country: Journalism and Science,” she wrote in a since-deleted Tweet. “Both are essential for democracy. We should criticize our important institutions, but we shouldn’t threaten their existence w/powerful ignorance.”
“I have never attacked science,” Musk replied. “Definitely attacked misleading journalism like yours though.”
The fallout will be unsurprising to anyone who’s seen how these sort of interactions typically play out. Biba was soon deluged by hundreds of Musk fans, who tracked her down across email, Twitter, and Instagram and levelled all manner of invective at her, from boilerplate “fake news” aspersions, to misogynistic insults. Last week, she documented the experience for The Daily Beast.
I have never attacked science. Definitely attacked misleading journalism like yours though.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 25, 2018
Musk probably thought nothing of the exchange, she wrote. “But in responding to me, Musk has subjected me to days and days of tweets, emails, direct messages, and Instagram tags. I was even at the top of Reddit for a second there. So, Elon, I ask you: Was what happened to me and other women you tweeted at the result you wanted? Did the punishment we received fit the crime?”
Musk’s riposte wasn’t particularly over the line on its face, but that doesn’t change what happens when a person of his stature — Musk is worth a reported $20 billion, and, more to the point here, commands over 20 million loyal followers on Twitter — brings a relative unknown to the attention of his fans: they pounce. “I have a separate folder just for the emails I still get from enraged Elon Musk fans two years after I made fun of him for not following any women on Twitter,” Verge writer Sarah Jeong tweeted recently.
Joshua Topolsky, The Outline’s founder and editor-in-chief, found himself in a similar situation during Musk’s anti-media rant.
“Do you think it's in the interest of powerful people to A: support a free press that exposes their lies, or B: tear it down so their lies are easier to tell?” he asked Musk.
“Who do you think owns the press? Hello,” he responded. Musk’s legion of followers seized upon the opportunity, sending a flood of anti-semitic messages at Topolsky over the course of the next couple days. There’s a reason why leading questions like this are often referred to as a “dog whistle”: it’s because they always unleash the hounds.
You're very smart so I want you to think about this for a second. Do you think it's in the interest of powerful people to A: support a free press that exposes their lies, or B: tear it down so their lies are easier to tell? Now ask yourself why the polls would look bad.— Joshua Topolsky (@joshuatopolsky) May 27, 2018
Musk may or may not have even been aware of what would happen in either case, giving him a very charitable benefit of the doubt. But at this point, not being cognizant of the potential for mass-harassment is sheer negligence on his part.
To be fair, he’s far from the only one to do this sort of thing. And it’s not only big celebrities who do it. Social media personalities with medium-to-large followings regularly quote-tweet every one of their arguments online to signal-boost the ridiculousness of anyone their mentions with the temerity to disagree with them. If nothing else, Musk and others seem to be taking a page from Donald Trump, who routinely calls out individuals from his massive soapbox, like when he sent a wave of harassing phone calls to union Indiana union leader Chuck Jones after criticizing him by name on Twitter, and as he did with Samantha Bee last week.
Abuse on social media has become de rigueur, but not all abuse is created equal. There’s an old saying in comedy: Punch-up; never punch-down. The same standard, ideally, is supposed to govern our interactions on social media. But for someone like Musk, or any other exceptionally powerful figure, there’s really nowhere to aim but down. And the problem is exacerbated when hundreds of others are waiting at the ready to glom on once the target has been pinpointed.
When fans of any powerful person rally to that individual’s defense, they’re effectively acting as the brutalizing, ideological security apparatus of a wealthy, disinterested celebrity.
Women, and women in media, are especially vulnerable to this sort of abuse online, as many attested to during a protest of Twitter under the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter last November, meant to highlight the platform’s failure to take reasonable measures to curb harassment. While men are slightly more likely than women to report having been harassed online, according to a Pew study from last year, the nature of that abuse can be particularly noxious for women. Forty-one percent of women who responded to an Amnesty International poll said that they had experienced abuse online that made them fear for their safety.
The rich and powerful are, of course, still human beings whose feelings can be hurt. But having a giant platform comes with the responsibility to use that platform responsibly. It’s something Neil Gaiman noted on Twitter in response to the Musk and Biba fall out.
“I screwed up very badly almost a decade ago a couple of times, and was called out by friends, before I understood that arguing on Twitter in front of millions of followers can be bullying,” he wrote. “If you have lots of followers and you publicly call someone out, you will wittingly or unwittingly set hundreds or thousands or people on them,” he went on. “It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of your cause. It’s about not being a dick.”
There’s another maxim, this one from the world of journalism, that explains in part why the likes of Trump or Musk are often at odds with the media: Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. When fans of any powerful person rally to that individual’s defense at the expense of a foe of vastly smaller stature, they’re effectively acting as the brutalizing, ideological security apparatus of a wealthy, disinterested celebrity who will never know that they exist, let alone put in the time defending them. And for what payoff? To number oneself among the legions of the mob?
The etymology of fandom — which derives from fanatic — is well known. Lately, online, it’s more common to see people using the rough synonym “Stan” to refer to acolytes of a particular celebrity — usually as a self-referential joke, one which tends to elide the actual meaning behind the Eminem song from where it came. In the song, the obsessive fan is driven insane with madness trying to relate to and impress his favorite rapper. He wants him to like him so much he’ll do anything. This is what it looks like when you join a mob on behalf of a celebrity online now. It may feel like loyalty, but it’s much more pathetic, and what’s worse, potentially dangerous.
It’s a puzzling way to spend ones short time on earth — buoying the exploits of the rich and powerful. And if it weren’t already obvious, the fall out of the #metoo movement has shown us that most of our faves aren’t worthy of the effort anyway. Just something to consider next time you find yourself brigading for an argument online.