One of the scariest words in the English language is “resurfaced.” It’s what happens—just by coincidence, surely—all too often when a famous person accomplishes something notable.
Take, for example, Kyler Murray, now the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals after being selected first in the NFL draft last April. But Murray faced a career-threatening derailment between the end of his collegiate career and the draft: Upon winning the Heisman Trophy, tweets dating back to when he was 14 and a high school freshman magically “resurfaced” and earned him exactly the wrong kind of attention.
Murray immediately apologized for his insensitive words and, as is also customary when this sort of thing happens, promptly deleted the offending tweets. Fortunately for him, the Twitter mob appeared largely to have forgiven him his freshman year trespasses.
Kevin Hart wasn’t so lucky. The wildly popular standup comedian lost his gig hosting the Oscars after 10-year-old tweets “resurfaced” in which he expressed how he’d react to his son coming out as gay.
Hollywood director James Gunn fell somewhere in between the two. He was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 after years-old tweets containing wildly offensive jokes came to light, but was rehired months later after the cast and many others came to his defense.
Others have been even unluckier. Public figures of all stripes, little-known authors, and even everyday Joe Schmoes have in recent years lost jobs, careers, book contracts, and plain old goodwill for intemperate or out-of-context remarks made online in their distant pasts dug up by the netroots and other hacktivists.
But let’s face it: there’s nothing magical about “resurfacing.” Twitter doesn’t send out push notifications sharing old tweets the minute a famous person accomplishes something. It takes a lot of digging.
While “deplatforming” has mostly been confined to the woke left, Gunn’s troubles were caused by conservative activists purporetedly offended by his outrageous jokes about child molestation. But the phenomenon has now been fully embraced by the right, with the New York Times reporting recently (and breathlessly) that “a loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House is pursuing what they say will be an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists.”
Apparently, a bunch of Trumpists – although, pointedly, not the campaign itself – have begun trawling the sordid social media pasts of various mainstream media journalists who’ve been unkind to El Presidente, in search of their own scandalous remarks.
This development seems entirely predictable. “Two can play at this game,” Sam Nunberg, a one-time Trump ally, told the Times. “The media has long targeted Republicans with deep dives into their social media, looking to caricature all conservatives and Trump voters as racists.”
The only surprise is that it took this long. That the trend would be embraced by “both sides” was predicted by Kevin Williamson in his new book, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics. Williamson, who was fired by the Atlantic just days after his hiring was announced in the wake of angry progressive complaints, mostly about his pro-life views, describes this escalating phenomenon as “ochlocracy” – “periodic and desultory mob rule effected through the exploitation and domination of both public and private centers of power.”
Williamson explains how and why we’ve collectively fallen prey to the enticements of the mob, citing Karl Loewenstein’s 1937 essay “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights.” A Jewish German political scientist in exile writing in the American Political Science Review, Loewenstein evinced an especially personal understanding of the phenomenon, which he characterized as “permanent psychic coercion, at times amounting to intimidation and terrorization scientifically applied.”
Whether amid fascist regimes, the academy, wannabe intellectuals, and cultural gatekeepers, Williamson argues, things escalate quickly: “leaders invent, hype, or exaggerate an out-group threat, make appeals to in-group solidarity, and, empowered by the purported emergency they have manufactured, set about on a course of sundry illiberal and authoritarian actions aimed not at persuasion or argument but at suppression, removing the out-group enemy from the public square, cutting them off from the realm of ordinary democratic discourse.”
But in addition to the ochlocrats’ propaganda, mob members find themselves strongly, if peculiarly, drawn to their bad behavior by an insatiable need for belonging. “The in-group dissolves the individual identity,” Williamson posits, “relieving the stressed and anxious pleb of an identity that was more a burden to him than an asset; at the same time, it provides a new and larger sense of identity as a member of the in-group. To join a mob is simultaneously an act of self-abasement and self-aggrandizement.”
And of course the culture and technology of contemporary interaction act as powerful accelerants to the already-raging fire of mob rule. Williamson cites studies of online behavior showing decisively that “both interactions with like-minded people and interactions with people holding other viewpoints tend to reinforce the preexisting views of those in the conversation and to exaggerate them. For that reason, the structure of social media makes outraged polarization practically inevitable.”
Make no mistake about it, he argues, ochlocracy is “the most important political issue of our time” because “discourse—the health and character of that discourse—is a force that exists above and outside of the specific policy questions of the day; it is the master-issue that will determine how every other issue is talked about and thought about—and whether those issues are thought about at all.”
But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the online mob conundrum lies in untangling the pernicious censorship knot between government and business. “Government looks to the culture when it is calculating what speech is permissible and what must be censored,” Williamson reckons, “and culture looks to the state as the ochlocrats and would-be censors undertake to define the scope and scale of their efforts.”
Nowhere has this censorious public-private partnership emerged more blatantly than in the mad race between right and left to regulate Facebook and other Big Tech platforms. Although for different reasons, both conservatives and progressives have recently gravitated toward reining in these private corporations, be it Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) largely misguided bill to wield Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act like a bludgeon or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) move to break up Google, Amazon, and others. A bipartisan consensus like this, such as it is, usually spells trouble for political and economic freedom.
In addition, Williamson frets that American speech norms are gradually giving way to European influence, which “balances” freedom of expression against other societal goods and places political restrictions on certain forms of speech deemed politically unacceptable, such as neo-Nazi rallies. Americans on the left and right have increasingly begun to summon invisible boogeymen to justify this or that impingement on free speech. But, Williamson argues, “hypothetical evils are generally preferable to real ones, and  the real evils of censorship and suppression are considerably worse than the hypothetical troubles that a more liberal attitude toward unpopular speech might risk.”
As we continue to elide the difference between governmental and societal suppression of expression, the pro-Trumpers’ campaign to expose the mainstream media isn’t helping things by plumbing the depths of the administration’s critics’ social media exploits in search of thought crimes.
It bears noting, of course, that these exploits are not government sanctioned. They’re not even formally part of Trump’s campaign. But it’s disturbingly easy to imagine this approach migrating exactly to such endeavors, whether Trump’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, or Joe Biden’s.
Still, only a courageous few are up to the task of resisting the mob and avoiding indulging, even passively, in the exposure of those on the other side. As Williamson puts it:
In the context of our political discourse—and this is as true for the citizen who takes his citizenship seriously as it is for the professional writer and critic—the individual is the one who can stand at least partly away from the demands of his tribe and class and try to see things as they are, and shout back over his shoulder what he sees. He is neither the Cavalier on the inside peering carefully out over the parapet nor the Roundhead on the outside looking suspiciously in—he is on the outside looking out.
One such brave outsider is Reason’s Robby Soave, a determined free speech advocate, who noted in the wake of the Murray kerfuffle: “I said it after Roseanne, I said it after Sarah Jeong, I said it after James Gunn, and I said it after Kevin Hart: It’s time to declare an end to the practice of mining people’s past social media comments for fire-able offenses.”
But there are precious few Soaves and Williamsons dotting the contemporary ideological and cultural landscape. Instead our discourse is increasingly shaped by outrage mobs that, for all their opposing viewpoints, resemble each other quite a bit. Turn down the volume, change the words on their signs, and Trumpist fanboys start to look pretty similar to Bernie bros. Only those who boldly stand against the ochlocrats, as difficult as that has become, can claim the high ground by espousing the enduring principles of liberal democracy.