E-Pluribus | September 30, 2021

A cancel culture example on steroids; another year, another decrease in internet freedom; and when it comes to fear of new technology, there's nothing new under the sun.

A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:

Jen Monroe: Did "Cancel Culture" Just Jump the Shark?

Frederick Joseph, a New York Times best-selling author with a penchant for crying wolf (or “race,” to be more precise) managed to get a Brooklyn woman fired from her job with Bevy, an online community event platform. In a textbook example of cancel culture, Jen Monroe at Arc Digital documents the fanatical efforts on Joseph’s part to shame the woman based on a short video clip he posted on social media, as well as Bevy’s near-instantaneous caving to the pressure to terminate its employee.

Obviously, assessing Sarley’s motivation or truthfulness is difficult. But what we do know for sure is that Joseph used his massive platforms to ruin her life. He encouraged his followers to identify—or dox—Sarley, posted screenshots showing her personal and employment information, and exerted pressure on Andersen to fire her. Even if you fully accept his version of the events, that behavior is borderline sociopathic. Much like Amy Cooper, Emma Sarley is now unemployed and likely unemployable in the near future over an incident in which her guilt is questionable at best. 

Joseph, the author of a 2020 anti-racist book called The Black Friend, has a strong focus on confronting racial insults and injustices in everyday life. There is no question that such “everyday racism” is a real problem, and some of the incidents he describes (e.g., a white woman approaching him while he is looking for his car key and asking what he is doing and whose car this is) sound like all-too-familiar racial indignities. But he also has a habit of ringing the “white supremacy” or “white privilege” alarm over petty incidents that may well have nothing to do with race.

[…]

Unfortunately, Joseph’s behavior, repugnant as it was, is almost to be expected at this point. Drumming up outrage is the quickest way to gain attention on social media, and that attention is vitally important to some. The real question is why companies continue to fall for these pressure campaigns and fold so quickly in the face of the tiniest bit of discomfort on social media. Bevy could have chosen to tell Joseph and Sarley to work it out between themselves—which is the half-hearted message Andersen tried to float after announcing Sarley had been terminated.

Read it all.

Washington Post Editorial Board: The Internet became less free this year — again

In a recent editorial, the editorial board of the Washington Post highlight Freedom House’s annual report on internet freedom. While the worst examples come from the usual suspects, the United States does not escape unscathed. The report’s authors cite examples of both the heavy hand of government and governmental indifference to the plight of consumers as contributing to the decrease in freedom.

The Internet is becoming less free — more and more so. Freedom House’s annual “Freedom on the Net” report found that in 2021 the rights of Web users declined for the 11th year in a row. The primary threats may seem contradictory, but they’re intertwined: a lack of regulation that enables abuse by powerful technology companies and too-aggressive regulation that is abusive itself.

[…]

The United States[’s]… “laissez-faire approach" to the tech industry, write the report’s authors, has enabled a ripe environment for data exploitation, disinformation and other malfeasance. By doing next to nothing, the federal government leaves the door open for companies to take advantage of consumers — or for bad actors to take advantage of consumers while the companies themselves do next to nothing. The risk of doing too much is also present here, however: See Texas, where a new law already facing legal challenge seeks to stop social media sites from removing posts or disciplining users based on “viewpoint.” A similar stricture in Florida was blocked by a judge this summer.

Read it all here.

Robby Soave: People Have Been Panicking About New Media Since Before the Printing Press

Smartphones and related technologies have come under increased scrutiny in recent years for contributing to a vast array of social ills. Robby Soave lays out a number of examples going back centuries of similar fears of technological advances that turned out far less dire than predicted. He suggests that though legitimate concerns exist, knee-jerk legislative and regulatory responses often do more harm than good.

Though the technology may be new, the irrational fear is not. Every invention that has expanded the communicative space—from the written word to the radio—has been accompanied by histrionic concerns about the potential for misuse and abuse. The fact that so many of these earlier tech panics failed the test of time should make us even more wary of the current paranoia.

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In 1936, the government of St. Louis, Missouri, tried to ban car radios because a "determined movement" had become convinced that the radio distracted drivers and caused car accidents. The car radio was widely feared by newspapers, which were competitors and had every incentive to sensationalize the product's dangers. The Charlotte News fretted in 1926 that radio was "keeping children and their parents up late nights, wearing down their vitality for lack of sleep and making laggards out of them at school." In his 1963 book, Passion and Social Constraint, the Dutch-American sociologist Ernest van den Haag lamented that the portable radio "is taken everywhere—from seashore to mountaintop—and everywhere it isolates the bearer from his surroundings" and that mass media alienate us "from each other, from reality, and from ourselves."

In 1898, The New York Times panned Thomas Edison's newly invented phonograph. "Our very small boys will fear to express themselves with childish freedom," wrote the Times. "Who will be willing even in the bosom of his family to express any but the most innocuous and colorless views?" As Jason Feifer of the Twitter account Pessimists Archive put it, the Times was essentially articulating the most modern concern of all: Edison's invention would lead to cancel culture.

"Something ought to be done to Mr. Edison," wrote the Times in another article. "And there is a growing conviction that it ought to be done with a hemp rope." Newspapers were so freaked out about Edison's revolutions in communications that they wanted him dead.

Read it all here.

Around Twitter

Not all “book banning” is created equal. Here’s the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s take:

Wesley Yang on the susceptibility of “science” and “reason” to pressure in the current era of social media:

A thread from Samantha Harris on the apparent blind spot of some in higher education to the reality of how critical race theory impacts education:

Finally, via Sarah McLaughlin, Hong Kong’s descent into tyranny continues: