While the vast majority of social media was lamenting the shocking death of Kobe Bryant, something very different was happening to Washington Post reported Felicia Sonmez. I’m writing about it only because how it illustrates the radical effect that online culture has on our perception of everything, even an untimely death of an athlete.
A couple hours after Bryant and his daughter Gianna were confirmed dead in a helicopter crash in California, Sonmez posted an article, not written by her, about the 2003 sexual assault allegations against Bryant. This appears to be the first thing Sonmez posted on Twitter related to Bryant’s death (an important point that I’ll explain in a moment). Within minutes of having posted the link to the article—titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: the DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession”—Sonmez was besieged with hundreds of angry replies, criticizing her for bringing the allegations up while everyone was reeling from the news. The replies kept coming and escalated in tone and viciousness, and Sonmez was quickly at the bottom of a social media pile-on. Clearly taken aback by the reaction, Sonmez doubled down, explaining why it was legitimate to talk about the rape accusation, and shaming her online critics by sharing a screenshot of her email inbox, which was filled with some pretty vile sentiments.
The next morning news broke that the Post had suspended Sonmez. Reputedly the suspension is due to her posting a screenshot of her inbox, which revealed the full names of some of her critics. I’ve got no idea if that’s really why she was suspended. It seems more likely to me that the Post did what a lot of employers have done in the social media age: Panic in response to a mob.
But here’s what I’ve taken from all this. This episode is one of the most thorough and illuminating examples I’ve ever seen of just how dysfunctional discourse is when it’s conditioned by technology like Twitter. Every single player in this story looks bad.
First, there’s Sonmez. Of course Sonmez has every right to link to a piece about Bryant’s rape allegations. And those allegations are important and remain important even in the aftermath of tragedy. But Sonmez knew exactly what she was doing by posting the article when she did. Everyone who knows the culture of social media at all knows why someone who had been absolutely silent about a celebrity’s stunning death to that point would post an article like that: in order to reshape the narrative. In the world of Twitter, not even news of someone’s death exists as an objective, actual thing. In the world of Twitter, something only matters to the degree that it participates in the story you want to tell. You know that this is a conditioning effect of social media by imagining someone marching to the middle of a vigil for Kobe Bryant, standing on a soapbox, and yelling about his rape allegations. Such an action would be considered unspeakably crude and unfeeling, not to mention stunningly foolish. Yet this kind of thing is common on social media (not to mention applauded). That’s how disorienting the digital timeline is.
Second, there’s the mob that came after her. Sonmez was unquestionably the target of horrific attacks. These sorts of shame storms tend to only get worse as time goes on and the angry crowd pivots from expressing outrage to trying to accomplish something with it (a firing, a doxxing, etc). How ironic is it that the vox populi of the internet sends death threats and slurs in defense of a celebrity’s reputation? But that’s the moral logic of the online jungle. It’s the same for conservatives and liberals alike, men and women alike, articulate and otherwise. There’s a gravitational pull to online nastiness that seems to cut through every kind of inhibition we have. It’s not enough to disagree. We must destroy. This sure sounds like the recipe for some kind of civilization collapse.
Finally, there’s the Washington Post. The decision to suspend Sonmez is ridiculous. Sonmez was insensitive and unwise, but at the end of the day the only transgression the Post really cared about was her being the target of an outrage campaign. Her suspension, like many other online-reactive disciplinary actions before it, does two lamentable things. First, and most importantly, it sends encouragement and affirmation to online bullies, especially ones that know how to effectively troll. Second, it now gives Sonmez a credible victim narrative and distorts the extent to which her ordeal was merely a twist of fate for someone who in a moment of volatile emotions tried to cancel and ended up getting canceled herself. Nothing excuses the harassment that Sonmez experienced. Nonetheless, there’s a valuable parable in the spectacle of a journalist miscalculating her ability to reshape a public narrative. But that lesson is lost in the aftermath of another bad decision to threaten someone’s livelihood over an unwise social media moment.
This is the state of journalism and of public discourse in 2020. This is the state of our culture’s ability to grieve the loss of life. God help us.