I’ve been trying to figure out how to encourage people with big online platforms to act more responsibly the next time something like this Jussie Smollett disaster comes up. Smollett’s disgraceful, criminal act of fraud laid bare social media’s terrible incentive structure: Many people were nudged toward spreading the scariest, most questionable versions of the story far and wide, and caution and prudence brought little reward. Those of us who had questions (and who aren’t conservative) didn’t want to raise those questions publicly out of a fear of being seen as less than fully sympathetic to Smollett, as not taking a possible hate crime seriously.
It’s hard to change people’s behavior. It’s doubly hard to do so when heated emotions and groupthink and tribalism enter the picture, when going along with the crowd feels important for validating and expressing one’s identity. That’s how outrage works — people don’t want to be left behind.
But if there’s any message here that might, in the long run, nudge people in the right direction, I think it’s this one: Spreading scary, unverified rumors hurts people. It’s immoral.
The Smollett story reminded me of another, much less widely publicized rumor. That one, which circulated last year, had to do with Kenneth Zucker, a controversial psychologist and sex researcher who has attracted a great deal of rumor-mongering over the years, some of which contributed to his firing, on the basis of false and exaggerated claims, from his job as the head of a clinic for gender dysphoric youth in Toronto (Zucker sued and eventually received an apology and a settlement worth more than half a million dollars from the hospital that oversaw his clinic).
In a short academic article he coauthored that touched on the general lack of comprehensive data about transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) youth, Zucker and his coauthors wrote that “Perhaps the establishment of an international registry of children seen at the many gender identity clinics in North America, Europe, Scandinavia, and elsewhere will allow further study of this basic demographic and its associated factors.” They were suggesting a way to pool data and better understand these young people.
A panicky group of Twitter users misunderstood this sentence, badly. Through a painful-to-watch game of internet telephone, its members convinced themselves that the authors were proposing a registry of trans kids similar to Nazi registries of Jewish people. This rumor even found its way into an article in the online LGBT tabloid Gay Star News headlined “Parents oppose ‘chilling, fascist’ global registry of trans kids” (the piece has since disappeared from the website with no explanation). The rumor didn’t make sense on its face: If it’s dangerous to have lists of TGNC kids, then that danger already exists in the form of patient records at clinics across the world. Giving researchers who already have access to some of these records access to other records, too, wouldn’t flip things from the status quo to “chilling” “fascism” — and as Zucker explicitly told GSN, the same safeguards that always protect this sort of data would of course be in place with regard to a hypothetical registry, too.
But none of this mattered — it was a scary rumor having to do with a marginalized group, so it traveled well. Some big accounts helped spread it.
What was so frustrating about this episode was that it did such unnecessary harm. That’s what scaring people for no reason is: harm. A bunch of people, many of whom had themselves had humiliating or dehumanizing or traumatic experiences at the hands of the mental-health and medical systems — because that’s what often happens to TGNC people forced to navigate these systems — now thought that a group of evil elites were conspiring to create a terrifying list that would expose young innocent people to danger. For no reason at all.
And so it went with the Smollett case, but on a much larger scale. Big Twitter accounts spread the idea that racist pro-Donald-Trump terrorists had stalked downtown Chicago with a noose, searching for a black person to viciously assault. And because there have been so many episodes like this in American history, and because people have so many legitimate fears about how black and LGBT people are treated here, this rumor, again, traveled well. This rumor, again, did harm.
I don’t blame people without large followings who fall for scary rumors and spread them. I wish they wouldn’t, that everyone understood these dynamics a bit better, but that’s a lot to ask — we are a rumory, easily spooked species. And it isn’t small social-media accounts who cause most of the harm here; it’s the big ones. The people who run those accounts, I would argue, do have a special responsibility, whether they are journalists or actors or activists or whatever else.
And the thing is: If you have a significant social-media platform, you lose nothing important if you simply wait or do some verification work before spreading a scary rumor. Think about it in terms of worst-case scenarios. The worst-case scenario if you do immediately spread a scary, unverified rumor is that you help foment fear for no reason, making the world a darker place, in addition to making things harder the next time an actual bad thing happens, since people will be less likely to believe such claims in the future.
What’s the worst-case scenario if instead you either wait or seek to independently verify the rumor in question prior to amplifying it? Is there one, even? I guess you’ll get less short-term social-media engagement — it’s definitely the case that the first X people to spread a new, scary rumor get the most likes, retweets, and so on. But is that really so important? Does that concern you more than the possibility of genuinely making the world a worse and scarier place for no good reason?
Maybe I’m being naive here, but I think most people want to be good. I think that on some intellectual level they can recognize that in spreading scary, unverified rumors, they’re doing harm. And it’s very, very easy to stop doing harm. Just wait. Even when things are intense and everyone around you is making the wrong, easy decision.