Why the Twitter Mob Keeps Winning


On Wednesday, the Academy announced that Kevin Hart would host the 2019 Oscars. On Thursday, Hart announced that he would not, in fact, be hosting.

What happened? Some folks had dug up some of Hart’s old tweets and stand-up bits (from around 2010, before his Hollywood breakout) in which he made some homophobic jokes. These tweets quickly spread across the Internet, and a backlash quickly grew against the Academy. Said Academy told Hart to apologize, and although he at first balked (saying that he’d come clean about these jokes in the past, and has changed his tune in the years since), increased pressure finally forced him to acquiesce, and he stepped down from his Oscar-hosting role.

Hart is not the first celebrity to get in trouble thanks to old tweets dug up by the social media mob – as another example, James Gunn (director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films) was fired by Disney after a series of pedophilic jokes he’d made around 2009 were brought to public attention. Dan Harmon was driven off Twitter after an old video depicting him making inappropriate jokes was forced to the surface. Israel Broussard was bashed for tweets he’d written as a teenager, as well as more recent tweets which reveal that, horrifying as it may sound, he supports Republicans. It’s gotten to the point that some celebrities have begun mass-deleting thousands of their old posts, out of fear that something they once wrote could somehow be used against them.

In the wake of the Hart debacle, some arguments have sprung up defending his removal from the Oscar-hosting gig. All these arguments do, however, is prove how flimsy and moronic the “Twitter mob rule” mentality really is:

“Well, he should have just apologized right away.”

Stop it. Plenty of other folks have apologized for old tweets. Gunn apologized, but that didn’t prevent him from losing his Guardians 3 gig. Outrage, particularly online outrage, is only satisfied by swift and active change. (And even then, the outraged are not really “satisfied”; if anything, getting their way will only embolden them to be even louder and angrier the next time.)

“This is an important step for the LGBT community.”

Stop it. Not a single gay person benefits from removing Hart as the Oscar host. Chances are that Hart had plenty of gay fans who were completely unaware of his old, long-buried tweets, and who now may feel pressure to look at him in a different light. Even though he hasn’t made any of these so-called jokes in over seven years. Important step backwards is more like it.

“Hart shouldn’t have a platform to spread hateful views.”

Hart has hosted the BET Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, the VMAs, and multiple episodes of Saturday Night Live. The most controversial thing he’s said during any of these gigs was a supposedly sexist comment about motherhood – and despite the criticism, his comment was made with good intentions. Hart’s stand-up brand may be off-color, but he delivers his jokes in positive spirits.

Does anyone really believe that Hart would have made bigoted jokes while hosting the Oscars? Jimmy Kimmel – a man who repeatedly wore blackface during a regular comedy routine on The Man Show – hosted in both 2017 and 2018 without engaging any racist humor. It’s fully likely that no one would have cared about Hart’s Oscar gig if not for a few people choosing to spend their Wednesday searching his Twitter history.

And that brings up the main question: Why are these outrage mobs so successful? Why do celebrities and studios keep caving to them, even when the anger is driven by long-buried comments?

The large part of the problem, predictably enough, is the Internet itself. Old tweets don’t go away; even if deleted, they can gain immortality through the magic of screenshots. Online comments further lack vocal inflection and facial cues; they exist in the cold, sterile world of written text. The same comment cam be interpreted as winkingly sarcastic or caustically malicious to different people, depending on how those people choose to approach the intentions of the commenter.

Much as we like to think our brains can automatically interpret comments correctly (since we’ve been trained from a young age in the process of “reading and comprehending”), the truth is that no part of our cranium is as powerful as the emotional sensor. Our amygdala is trained to respond more actively to loud, angry arguments, either by voicing support or expressing dissent. Compound humanity’s built-in responses with the soundless wind tunnel that is social media, and the Internet becomes a potent weapon for manipulating others’ emotions. (You get an INCREASE IN YOUR EMOTIONAL RATE when reading words typed in all-caps, for example.)

Online mob leaders understand this, and they’ve weaponized social media to benefit them. Certain buzzwords (which, regardless of context, can provoke a reaction in people), a catchy hashtag, and a dose of self-righteousness all go a long way to getting the attention needed to start the ball rolling on the latest Twitter “controversy.” And before you know it, a small but very vocal crowd of people – complete with their own angry, globally-publicized tweets – appear a force to be reckoned with.

They’re not, of course. Most instances of “online outrage” are sparked by a small subsection of the online world. They may know how to gain leverage, but as social media becomes more mainstream, and as they continue to hunt down every old tweet and controversial comment in existence, maybe corporations will eventually catch on.

Or, maybe as Twitter grows ever larger, the mob will find even more tweets to exploit and more people to take down for the crime of being more famous than they are. And we can all continue playing this game of so-called “justice” again and again, for the rest of eternity.

In the meantime, the Academy needs to find themselves a new host. Perhaps they’d do well to pick someone who has preemptively deleted his or her Twitter history. Or maybe they should find someone who’s never had a Twitter account at all; that may be the optimal solution at this point.

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