A nineteen year-old girl in Loudoun County, Virginia was forced to withdraw her admissions acceptance to the University of Tennessee following death threats and public vilification.
Despite championing Black Lives Matter last spring and asking her friends on social media to donate to the cause, Mimi Groves became the center of a media controversy over a 4-second video from 2016 — in which she used the n-word over Snapchat. The New York Times reported that one of her classmates held onto the clip, “deciding to post it publicly when the time was right.”
“If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” her former classmate Jimmy Galligan told the publication. “I’m going to remind myself, you started something.”
Neither the girl nor the boy involved are celebrities (they are teenagers and the video in question was filmed when one of them was a fifteen year-old high-school freshman), yet both have been transformed into notorious public figures by social and traditional media. In an environment where everyday Americans moonlight as opposition researchers looking to weaponize one another’s pasts out of resentment, personal gain, or ideology (often a combination), it is those without the resources to defend themselves who are heaviest affected.
Weaponizing an individual’s past was traditionally reserved for the ruling classes; politicians are subject to intense scrutiny by the media, and regularly contend with rival political teams combing through their past speeches for a remark to use as partisan ammunition. During President Donald Trump’s presidency, however, political weapons became widely deployed among more Americans against one another as longstanding institutions were rocked by leftist activism; activism driven by Americanized interpretations of French structuralist frameworks seeing hierarchies as inherently oppressive, with the solution being direct attacks on individuals and institutions. Although the tactics of “cancel culture” were largely the same as what has been practiced in the U.S. media for decades (removing someone from their position by generating outrage), what changed was the scale in which these tactics were applied, and the form they took with new philosophical models of interpretation.
There is a radical amount of transparency today compared to what has existed throughout human history. Everything entered into a phone is under surveillance (by the tech companies which built the framework for communication to the data brokers selling this information to third parties to the other person on the receiving end of a correspondence). Everything we say to another person we have to assume can be used against us at a latter date, regardless of whether or not that person intends to harm us or not, as hackers can also selectively release snippets from correspondences for blackmail efforts or psychological warfare (like what happened during the 2016 election when actors linked to the Russian government published selections from John Podesta’s emails). Words are framed however a competent actor frames them, with assigned motivations packaged into narratives. An individual likewise represents their employer, friends, and other associations through their past, present, and future actions.
One’s quest for power, prestige, and money in America does not carry today the same risks as it did for those in the capital of the Roman Empire, or even a developing country like Uganda (where the slightest miscalculation results in assassination). As Steven Pinker spends over 800 pages to proving in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence as a whole has been on the decline throughout history, even in developing countries, in both the short and long-term. What Pinker notes is how increased communication has raised our awareness for violence,
The elevation of every voice through digital forums has created an environment in which everyone, regardless of socioeconomic class or psychological wellness, can hit one another, and be struck, by cognitive weapons traditionally reserved for the ruling class (mostly opposition research about a person’s past blasted across digital forums and traditional media). Professional destruction, bankruptcy, and social alienation are the new forms of assassination in an interconnected economy in which the digital world carries equal weight as physical surroundings, and directly influences one’s financial status and community standing.
Activists have argued that cognitive weapons deployed through new forms of media (which involve someone’s past and can exist as a message with questionable language or an allegation of misconduct from years prior) levels the playing field by allowing marginalized individuals to call out powerful figures who wronged them. But in practice, preexisting power structures reinforced themselves through the political activism that stood against Donald Trump. Powerful figures and celebrities had amassed enough social, political, and financial capital to withstand such attacks, and insulated themselves with teams of publicists and lawyers while gaming their search engine results to maintain images built carefully over years without societal upheaval.
Linking an individual’s past behavior (which in some cases dates back to Middle School, as was the case with a dropped draft pick for the Arizona Coyotes) to their current association reinforces capitalist structuralists while removing vital safeguards which traditionally protected workers. If an employee can be fired for something they did or did not say or do as a child, then companies exert more control over their labor force. An employee is lucky to have a job in the first place given the high moral standards in American society, and if their past behavior becomes a problem for a company’s public image, they are eliminated and replaced.
These types of attacks over past behavior or remarks can happen to anyone and will likely proliferate in the immediate with new forms of material drawn from dating apps, company slack messages, and messenger boards. Given the continued erosion of privacy, as well as widespread cyber-attacks on companies with highly personal customer data, it is possible we will see a media landscape emerge in which even an individual’s search engine results become fodder for competent actors looking to paint unflattering narratives resulting in bankruptcy and financial ruin. Since these are the stories people naturally look at, and since newsrooms must produce stories that people want to look at, there will be more of them. Pornography preferences, banking transactions, shopping cart histories; nothing is off-limits because Americans have already accepted a reality in which a four second clip of a fifteen year-old using a racial slur is enough to mark her into adulthood, the Scarlett letter partially issued by The New York Times.
This strain of Puritanism and shaming is rooted deeply in American history and its culture. However, so is opposition to it. Rather than cheer the release of such opposition research, or get desensitized to it, Americans should ask how the world is better for knowing certain things about another person, and whether the release of this information actually produces institutional change or instead serves corporate interests by dividing everyday Americans over identity politics.