The dark side of viral rage

Aug. 25, 2014, 1:00 p.m.

When Chris Herries, a Stanford senior, spoke to Bloomberg about sexual assault, the Internet exploded. “Stanford Student Compares Rape to Not Locking Up Bike,” wrote Jezebel, a feminist website; a number of other publications followed suit. Commenters labeled Chris with epithets and speculated as to whether he had a criminal record.

Women are not bikes and no one deserves to be raped. If Chris left it ambiguous whether he believed that, he made a mistake, although his own account of what happened is worth reading.

But the tiniest bit of due diligence makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t believe that. His pieces for The Stanford Daily show him thinking seriously about masculine norms, opening up about his own virginity, criticizing men who drink too much and writing thoughtfully about victim blaming here and here. (That last article is where the bike metaphor comes from; at the time, no one complained.) Oddly, the Jezebel reporter clearly looked at some of his articles, but for some reason still decided that Chris deserved to be vilified; from there, the news spread virally.

As a scientist who studies the viral spread of such outrage, I have seen firsthand how much good it can do for women’s rights. It is amazing to see thousands of #YesAllWomen tweets roll down your screen: to feel the sheer power of that righteous rage, to believe that justice will be done. But such rage has a dark side when its target is not a murderer but a college student whose views may have been misrepresented.

Chris doesn’t deserve to look like a rapist every time an employer Googles his name. There’s a certain hypocrisy in demonizing a human being because you think he doesn’t treat women like human beings.

Chris is the latest of many to feel the rage of the internet. In some cases, the targets are entirely innocent: Take for example Shirley Sherrod, who was fired after being falsely accused of racism. In other cases, the target made a mistake, but the response is not proportional. The UCLA student who posted a video making fun of Asians clearly erred, but did she really deserve the death threats that forced her to leave school?

I would argue that a little leniency is particularly important in the case of college students, because colleges are supposed to be bastions of free inquiry and college students, frankly, say lots of stupid things. I’ve learned an enormous amount from losing arguments about my own ill-considered opinions, but I could never have had those arguments had they been Tweeted to the world. Even when you’re not saying something stupid, it’s hard to write or speak openly about about controversial issues when the internet will jump on a remark with no regard for the context in which you said it. I was reluctant to write this article because I worried I would incur backlash from Jezebel, and I am a woman who spends most of her free time working for gender equality: We should be on the same team here.

The other problem is that, while articles like Jezebel’s are fun to read, they don’t change minds; they just fire up the people who already agree and alienate everyone else. This creates “information silos”, where people only listen to news to which they’re already sympathetic; for a recent example of this, see the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This siloing is particularly problematic in the case of sexual assault, which requires male allies to combat; people like Chris Herries are exactly who Jezebel should be reaching out to.

I am not saying that outrage is never justified or never improves communication: It has made it much less acceptable to use racial slurs or victim-blaming rhetoric, for example, and this is good. But I am opposed to outrage for the sake of outrage, outrage because it’s intoxicating or retweetable. It is easy to get angry at an out-of-context quote; I have learned that when you write for a large audience, people will interpret your words in ways you never anticipated. This isn’t their fault — it’s just that communication is difficult. But in this game of Telephone times a trillion, we will communicate more efficiently, and solve social problems more quickly, if we err on the side of assuming good intent. The world will not end if you swallow that virtual vitriol, or if you take the time to read someone’s work rather than assuming that everything worth knowing about them can be contained in a Tweet.


Emma Pierson ‘13 is working as a statistician at 23andMe before beginning study at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. She writes about statistics at her blog, Obsession with Regression. Contact her at [email protected].

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