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By this time, many readers have likely heard something about the hullabaloo at the New York Times regarding their newest member of the editorial board, Sarah Jeong. The controversy began after a number of her tweets were published containing callous and hostile rhetoric towards whites. The story quickly made the rounds, with many conservative-leaning outlets such as Fox News and the National Review calling for her to be fired for alleged bigotry and progressive-leaning outlets such as the Verge and Washington Post stating that the tweets were satirical and/or in response to trolls.

As the weekend approaches we’ll learn more about the context of Ms. Jeong’s tweets, but for now, the New York Times’s decision to stand by their new hire presents a challenge progressive organizers and communicators concerning an increasingly relevant issue in our tech-centered world: mobs and the media.

A Rebirth of an Old Phenomenon

The modern online mob can trace its spiritual roots to the shaming practices and vigilantism present from the earliest days of the colonization of North America. Religiously-inspired public condemnations of women who stepped outside rigid social norms were frequent occurrences in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and extrajudicial executions and lynchings of African-Americans for committing perceived slights against the dominant white majority were ubiquitous throughout the United States. While the stakes are far lower in the 21st Century than in the past, fevered crowds are still taking action into their own hands to “correct” what they believe to be a social transgression.

A constant feature of the mob is its moral flexibility. The mob is a blank slate, upon which whatever the area’s status quo is etched. The anger of the mob could be (and has been) as easily directed at migrant workers accused of “stealing jobs” as instead targeting a wealthy corporate baron who the community believes received too light a sentence for some transgression.

Creating Methods to the Madness

The debates and positions we hear about modern online mobs usually fall into one of two camps: either they are grassroots/mass movements that create a net benefit by holding people accountable for their words or beliefs, or that they are toxic to the discourse needed to have a free society and should be ignored and condemned. However, there is important nuance that both camps tend to overlook.

The anti-mob crowd ignores the reality that there are certain professions that have an outsized effect and power over members of the public that other occupations do not. Some examples include:

  1. Police Officers
  2. Members of the Armed Forces
  3. Bank/Financial Loan Officers
  4. Journalists
  5. Educators

These professions are entrusted with enormous power and influence, with the power to harm or destroy lives if wielded improperly. Tweets or public statements that show a pattern of bias toward any group should, on its face, be reason enough to disqualify someone from their position in one of these professions. To quote the valiant and noble Spider Man, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and a higher degree of responsibility is required for individuals entrusted with power over the public.

Outside of these limited professions, the situation gets murkier. Should a Home Depot employee wearing an “America Was Never Great” hat feel the brunt of the mob? How about a programmer who flies a Confederate flag on his back porch? While countless people would likely view these actions as offensive, it crosses a line when we weaponize poverty by going after the employment of private citizens (and their families) who have said something controversial or even offensive, especially when their jobs arguably have no real power over the general public.

The mob has no underlying philosophy, no written procedures, no way to obtain redress of grievances from those who believe themselves to be harmed by it. Its mere existence can be a terrifying specter for those living paycheck-to-paycheck in the gig economy, and rather than raising their voice in the public sphere and risk the ire of the mob, our most vulnerable citizens may opt to decline public participation entirely. In our cultural conversation over the role of the mob, all these circumstances must be taken into account.

Unequal Impacts

A growing catalyst for mob attention has been media organizations publishing dubiously relevant background information about private citizens and limited purpose public figures. Due to progressively-minded people being inordinately represented in the journalist profession, this can unfortunately create the perception of David-vs-Goliath bullying in the minds of centrists, moderate Republicans, and independent voters; the very communities needed for outreach if the Democratic Party hopes to win back red state Senate seats, exurban/rural Congressional districts and eventually the White House.

Consider the extended media focus on the lovable presidential debate questioner Ken Bone, and his past reddit comments. It is doubtful there was any public interest served in major outlets analyzing his “dad jokes” about pregnancy. Similarly, the amount of journalistic resources that went into identifying an anonymous twitter user whose meme was retweeted by President Trump, and then threatening to “out” him if he was not sufficiently contrite about intolerant statements he made in the past on an anonymous message board is enough for any individual to question the actions and judgment of our major media outlets.

However, some of the most inflammatory events have been the perceived unequal consequences for ugly tweets and statements depending on one’s political affiliation. When Roseanne Barr was dropped from ABC after her racially-fueled tweets against Valerie Jarrett, the response from the entertainment industry and the press was universal approval. When James Gunn was dropped from Disney after his tasteless and disturbing tweets, many of his peers in these same industries rallied in support for Gunn to return to his job.

And people noticed.

The perceived hypocrisy in who receives the brunt of the mob is not lost in the discourse. Conservative-leaning publications are eager to point out this imbalance, and it reinforces a widely-held narrative of powerful progressive coastal industries out to destroy the “common man” while preserving their own careers, despite the Republicans actually the ones holding power in all three branches of government. A cultural acceptance of mob outrage is already problematic, but an unequal meeting out of the repercussions of the mob can turn an unpleasant cultural meme into a venomous one.

A Problem of Authenticity and Credibility

This brings us back to today’s controversy surrounding Sarah Jeong. While the Ms. Jeong’s and the New York Times’s response has hinged on excusing the tweets through concepts of institutional power, racism vs. prejudice, and satire, much of the public doesn’t buy in. Despite the genuine realities of group-wide power differentials, many people will have difficulty seeing how a Harvard-educated nationally-syndicated journalist who has been comparing people to groveling goblins, advocating for white extinction and making empathy-free pronouncements about her enjoyment being cruel to white men is deserving of a place at one of the most prestigious and influential newspapers in the world, even with group power dynamics taken into account. Surely, they most wonder, there must be countless other qualified Asian-American women who don’t have such an ugly and hostile pattern of public statements who could have been hired in her place.

The cascade of progressive media outlets posting pieces in defense of Ms. Jeong’s tweets and editorial position only furthers the disconnect and perception of bad faith that progressive organizers must deal with when outreaching to communities outside of heavily blue areas. The impression of hypocrisy in the press rushing to catalyze mob attention at conservative figures or apolitical private citizens while closing rank to protect “one of their own” gives credibility to the narrative of a biased “Fake News” media and heightens the influence of conservative outlets. With these rightwing sources such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Caller gaining in credibility, they are pushing their own narratives that local progressive canvassers, organizers and community leaders are equally hostile and untrustworthy. A discredited and perceived-hostile mainstream media creates a near insurmountable challenge for community organizers trying to raise awareness and build power on behalf of marginalized communities, as they are now forced to work in a post-fact environment where nothing and no one is considered authentic or authoritative.

The Way Forward

The New York Times has three primary options. The first is to concede to the mob and drop Sarah Jeong. The second, which looks like their current course of action, is to defend Ms. Jeong without making any subsequent commentary or commitments regarding double standards and mob culture overall.

But there is a third option, which can produce win-win results.

The editorial board can maintain Ms. Jeong’s employment while putting out a statement and commitment to refocus publicity on what is in the public interest, not just what potentially salacious background stories of private citizens may interest the public. That controversial tweets and statements of individuals of all political persuasions will be examined holistically and within context of relevant apologies and attempts at restitution. And that attempts to remove someone from their job should be limited to particularly egregious public statements and/or certain professions with power over the public.

This would come alongside a statement from Sarah Jeong acknowledging that while standing up to trolls is admirable, the sheer ugliness and hostility of the tweets isn’t something that should be emulated by those looking to enter the field of journalism.

Finally, as a culture, community, and country, we can take this and past similar incidents as a learning experience to commit ourselves to:

  1. Calling an armistice on participating in mob aggression toward private citizens, with the exception of particularly outrageous antisocial behavior such as calling the police on people for ordinary non-violent behavior
  2. Reserving grassroots mass criticisms for professions that hold significant power over the public
  3. Create spaces for learning and reconciliation between communities, so as to build allies for a progressive future instead of martyrs for a reactionary rightwing