Our Digital Pasts Weren’t Supposed to Be Weaponized Like This

“It’s the polar opposite,” she said. “It’s more reactionary and judgmental than it’s ever been.”

Why haven’t repeated calls to replace digital shaming with empathy and compassion resonated? Or at the very least, why hasn’t a fear of mutually assured destruction set in?

“I think it’s because it’s worked, so partisan operatives and actors are going to continue to use the technique,” Ms. Ball said. “They ginned up this outrage to get Emily Wilder fired. And then they have the temerity to cry about ‘cancel culture.’”

That is the current phrase used by the political right to describe punishing people for “wrongthink.” According to Pew, a majority of Americans are now familiar with the term, but feelings are mixed about whether it’s beneficial, leading to a more accountable society, or a cruel form of punishment, willfully taking people’s actions out of context.

Part of the problem is how time itself has been warped by the internet. Everything moves faster than before. Accountability from an individual’s employer or affiliated institutions is expected immediately upon the unearthing of years-old content. Who you were a year ago, or five years ago, or decades ago, is flattened into who you are now. Time has collapsed and everything is in the present because it takes microseconds to pull it up online. There is little appreciation for context or personal evolution.

And it’s not just happening to journalists and politicians, whose jobs invite frequent public musings, but to high school students and business executives, because we are all now online so much of the time.

Some see the benefit in this shift. In the same Pew survey, of over 10,000 people, more than half approved of calling out people for their behavior on social media, saying it helps hold people accountable. “People look closer at their actions, forcing them to examine what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what are the consequences of said actions,” said one of the people surveyed.

Ms. Ball remains hopeful that things will change. “The reactionary culture is damaging and unhelpful and just really brutal for everybody involved,” she said. “A lot of our society wants to see ourselves as believing in forgiveness, believing in redemption, believing in the ability of people to learn and grow and get better.”

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