In October 2014, the Pew Research Center published the results from a survey about online harassment. Six years later, it preserves some popular attitudes about the internet from earlier phases: pre–Trump administration, pre–“cancel culture,” and within weeks of Gamergate. It’s one of many surveys that have tracked widespread sentiments about the internet for the past couple of decades. “Fully 73 percent of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40 percent have personally experienced it,” the report begins.
Only 17 percent of respondents said they worked in digital technology. So they weren’t just a bunch of journalists whining about their Twitter mentions. Forty percent of respondents said they’d suffered online harassment in one form or another; 66 percent of those web users traced their most recent harassment to social media platforms, and 22 percent traced their most recent harassment to editorial comment sections. “Websites for news organizations were often described as particularly contentious,” Pew researchers found. The respondents tended to associate such nastiness in comment sections with the commenters’ anonymity. “Some 63 percent agreed that the online environment was more enabling of anonymity than the offline environment.” Though the report was titled “Online Harassment,” it differentiated between harassment and criticism. “Fully 92 percent agreed that the online environment was more enabling of criticism,” the report said. In comparison: “Some 68 percent said the online environment was more enabling of social support, while 31 percent did not agree.”
The survey underscored some anxieties that have only worsened in the years since Pew published these results. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have half-assed the content moderation policies for their respective social media platforms; the early web editors and bloggers struggled to moderate their comment sections. In recent years, several publications shuttered their comment sections, citing toxic contributions and unwieldy moderation. For a few years, Ta-Nehisi Coates hosted a downright utopian comment section on his blog at The Atlantic. But the typical comment section in web media tended to assemble cranks, bullies, and stalkers. “Please do not add a comment section,” a reader begged Andrew Sullivan in March 2008 during Sullivan’s first year publishing his blog, The Daily Dish, at The Atlantic. “Most comment sections are clogged with drivel, invective, or redundancy.” In May 2015, Slate published a roundtable with four staff writers discussing the pros and cons of comment sections titled, “Are trolls ruining Slate’s comment section?” One writer, Amanda Marcotte, said, “I am personally a huge fan of free speech, which is why I think comment sections should be closed.” The roundtable’s contributors struggled, much as the survey’s respondents did, to reconcile the merits of comment sections with the nuisance they bring. “If we’re putting ideas out there,” Rachael Larimore said, “I think we have a duty to listen to our readers’ responses.” Will Oremus said, “I want my stories to start a conversation, and I want my readers to feel like they have a voice in that conversation.” In the spirit of Oremus’s contribution, I consulted the comment section on the Slate roundtable recently and found a four-year belated response from a user who wrote, “publications don’t have comments sections because they don’t trust their own readership.”
In February 2018, The Atlantic shuttered its comment sections. Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg explained the decision in a letter to readers by writing, “Over the years, robust conversation in The Atlantic comments section has too often been hijacked by people who traffic in snark and ad hominem attacks and even racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish invective.” The New York Times, HuffPost, The Guardian, Slate, BuzzFeed, and the Gizmodo Media Group websites, such as Jezebel and Kotaku, continue to host comment sections for each article published. HuffPost—a pioneer in user-generated discussion in the early 2000s—overhauled its comment system in 2013. “We wanted to create a positive environment for people to have a real conversation with each other. We pre-moderated all comments, developed state-of-the-art moderation technology, and hired a platoon of human moderators—a 40-person-strong team to supplement the technology and ensure a civil environment,” the HuffPost editors wrote. “But one glance at our comment section or the comment sections of other sites demonstrates what we’re all up against. Trolls have grown more vicious, more aggressive, and more ingenious. As a result, comment sections can degenerate into some of the darkest places on the Internet.”
The news websites shuttered comment sections, or curtailed the commenters’ prominence in order to improve the general discourse. But “improvement” is not quite what happened to the general discourse in the latter half of the 2010s. The comment sections closed. The journalists rejoiced. And then they logged on to Twitter.
For the past couple of years, Twitter has hosted a long and immoderate argument about reason, free speech, civil debate, and the supposed impediment to these principles: “cancel culture.”
On July 7, Harper’s Magazine published a “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” signed by 153 authors and intellectuals, including luminaries such as J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky, which declared its opposition to “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The signatories hope “to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences,” referring (cryptically) to recent censures, dismissals, and resignations in various professional corners. In early June, New York Times opinion editor James Bennet resigned from the newspaper after an internal staff rebellion against his decision to publish an op-ed from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, urging President Donald Trump to send federal troops to confront protesters in various cities. So “cancellation” might mean (as in Bennet’s case) someone losing their job in response to disagreeable expression. It might also refer to symbolic repudiation, such as the protesters “cancelling” historical figures such as Robert E. Lee, Christopher Columbus, and George Washington by toppling their statues in several cities; hence, Trump denouncing “cancel culture” in a speech at Mount Rushmore in early July. The term has become a shorthand for describing any left-wing overreaction to some publicized offense. “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” doesn’t mention “cancel culture,” but its signatories and critics have named it as the spectral concern.
There are two ride-or-die factions in the “cancel culture” conflict. There’s the left-wing contingent, which regards popular backlash against regressive figures and ideas as righteous, radical, and empowering. They demand “accountability” from otherwise unaccountable subjects. Then there’s the rationalist contingent, which regards these campaigns as vengeful, disproportionate, and chilling. They regard “accountability” in most cases as an ideological farce. In response to “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” 163 signatories joined a counter-letter, titled “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” characterizing the original letter as “a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry”—namely, journalism—“one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry.” The critics of social justice and “cancel culture” tend to blame liberal arts colleges—which they characterize as being overrun with sinister theorists, censorious activists, and craven faculty—for cultivating the emergent left-wing pessimism about free speech. The rationalists see the radicals overriding the old free speech principles with higher commitments to identitarianism and Marxism, forming a petty totalitarianism. “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time,” the Harper’s signatories conclude.
“When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based ‘social justice’ movement,” Sullivan wrote for New York in 2018, “the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well.” Three weeks ago, Sullivan announced he was leaving New York, believing he’d proved “out of sync with the values of Vox Media” (which acquired New York in September 2019). Hours before Sullivan announced his resignation, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss announced her resignation. Sullivan and Weiss both invoked the campus activism theory of progressive stridency and censorship as a reason for their departures. “I’ve been mocked by many people over the past few years for writing about the campus culture wars. They told me it was a sideshow. But this was always why it mattered,” Weiss tweeted a couple of weeks before her resignation. “The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.”
The campus activism theory of “cancel culture” rests on some very broad, confused, and cartoonish assumptions about progressive millennials: They’ve all embraced a new totalitarian program with absolute uniformity in their convictions, each derived from the typical liberal arts education and then exported to the wider workforce. This illiberal millennial caricature distracts from the more obvious influence on the millennial outlook on speech and identity: the internet. It has shattered brains, calloused hearts, scrambled discourse, and imperiled governments. The internet has turned out to be the worst innovation in political dissemination—at least in the U.S.—since cable news. Millennials were the first generation to spend their formative years online, stewing in misinformation, bigotry, harassment, and trolling at massive scale and real-time pace. These millennials didn’t binge-read Marx. They hate-read the comments, and now they’ve arguably become maladapted to them. They developed their pessimism about free speech principles in response to the massive and bewildering transition to digital democracy. We don’t live on campus. We live on the internet.
Sullivan, 56, was an esteemed author and editor before launching his personal blog at the turn of the century. He adapted to the internet; millennials spawned from it. They witnessed the slow-motion collapse of the general discourse, from Godwin’s law through Gamergate through Russiagate. Though often characterized as a new dimension in the public square, the internet often resembles a stupid and gruesome funhouse. In this bewildering dimension, millennials watched persuasion degrade into shell games and street magic. They see the rationalists chanting “ad hominem,” “bad faith,” and “motte and bailey,” like Harry Potter spells, into the abyss, and they do not see the point. They can only cope with the internet and blend into its surroundings. Unlike Sullivan, millennials, and now Zoomers, can’t revert to pre-web ideals from some earlier point in their personal and professional experience. They’re historically stranded on the internet.
We closed comments. We built paywalls. We muted replies. We moved the conversation to newsletters and podcasts. We’re still learning to live with the internet in the 2020s.
A month ago, the political theorist Yascha Mounk launched Persuasion, an editorial “community” opposed to “illiberal movements.” A week later, Sullivan relaunched The Dish on Substack, a subscription newsletter platform that has recently become popular with independent publishers. Sullivan pitched his new venture as “a truly free intellectual space where anything, yes anything, can be debated without personal abuse or questioning of motives.” The rationalists aren’t alone in their efforts to regroup. Last week, 18 former writers and editors of Deadspin reconstituted as a new employee-owned enterprise, Defector Media, once again determined to cover sports and whatever else the staff pleases “without access, without favor, without discretion, and without interference.” With paywalls, these media startups offer the promise of some critical distance from the terrordome of the internet by pitching themselves as independent communities. “Twitter has been bad for me,” Sullivan wrote in his final column for New York. “It’s just impossible to respond with the same care and nuance that I was able to at The Dish. And if we want to defend what’s left of liberal democracy, it’s not enough to expose and criticize the current model. We just need to model and practice liberal democracy better.”
Sullivan resents the critical forces that have aligned against him. Defector launches with similar disenchantment about the commercial forces that have ravaged web journalism. Its founders quit Deadspin en masse last fall after a dispute with their bosses, installed by private-equity ownership, at G/O Media. “A lot of us felt adrift,” editor-in-chief Tom Ley told The New York Times. “If we felt that way, it’s likely there are pretty significant numbers of former readers who felt that way and would be willing to pay money to have that kind of publication come back.” So even The Dish and Defector—opposite factions in the “cancel culture” discourse—share a dwindling, but not yet exhausted optimism about the very same internet that has wrecked the news business (among other things). This optimism abounds in so many digital corners: Millennials have watched social media platforms demoralize the country for more than a decade, and yet much of tech media now places their utmost civic confidence in Zoomers on TikTok. Who knows how such optimism persists into the next decade? I’d like to think this unrelenting belief in the benevolent capacity of the internet speaks to some common, underlying faith in the free exchange of ideas. But realistically, I think the last traces of civic optimism about the internet speak to some darker dependency. “Don’t read the comments,” we said. But here we are.