the nobody problem

You will have likely observed that social media has long since become a kind of perpetual fox hunt where a target is identified for social extermination and everybody joins in. Every morning on Twitter that’s the essential question: who will we hound today?

What you may notice is that those most dedicated to escalating every conflict into an excommunication are not the name brand blue-check types but low-follower, low-engagement accounts. (Which is no insult, or not from me; I was never a high-follower account myself.) Why?

I wrote a piece years ago, when I was on Twitter, and called them Accelerants – people who seem to exist only to make conflict on social media nastier. And I think the really essential piece is this: no one cares enough about them individually to know how morally they act themselves, and so they can engage in moral censure of everyone and everything. If you are enough of a visible personality that people might track your history, people can respond to your moral judgments by pointing out areas where you yourself have failed to act morally, or at least, to areas where your moral beliefs appear to be inconsistent. But if no one cares about you enough to remember what you’ve said and done in the past, you’re free. And in the middle of a Twitter mobbing there’s so many low-follower accounts coming at people that no one could possibly respond to them all even if they cared enough to know something about them. They draw power from their powerlessness; they have the strength of a faceless horde. Facelessness, after all, means there can be no accountability.

It is true that claims of hypocrisy are never dispositive for solving actual moral questions and that a tu quoque is a fallacy. But it’s also true that “you should follow the same basic moral rules that you judge others for failing” and “those who judge should take care as they themselves are subject to judgment” are pretty elementary (and elemental) aspects of navigating the human moral universe. There’s no possibility of that when you have all of these accounts that are for all intents and purposes burners, ones that combine literal pseudonymity with the inherent anonymity of being a face in the crowd – especially when that face is some avatar chosen for its disposability.

Anonymity breaks morality. It removes the basic sense of skin-in-the-game that’s necessary for accountability and adult conduct. It erases the requirement to be morally consistent and eliminates any sense of shame about shaming others. (You have a plank in your own eye, I assure you. We all do. You are not the exception.) And social media gives anonymity to a vast army of people who have, according to all available evidence, nothing but ill intent, the desire to do harm. Is it any wonder all of it is a horror show?