Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

Trial By Twitter

(Pixabay.com)
(Pixabay.com)

On August 9th, British Member of Parliament Dawn Butler was sitting in the passenger seat of a car in London, when police pulled the driver over and requested proof of ownership. Their concern? The vehicle was apparently registered to a residence in Yorkshire, and seeing it driving around London aroused suspicion that it was stolen. Butler and the driver, both black, recorded the incident and posted the video along with accompanying commentary to Twitter. Butler’s opinion was unequivocal: she had been the latest victim of racial profiling in Britain’s institutionally racist society. The initial tweet (below) hit over 10,000 retweets and 32,000 likes – not to mention the deluge of comments, both for and against, that followed in its wake.

 

The purpose of this piece is not to pass judgement from the comfort of a keyboard on Ms Butler’s interpretation, nor for that matter on how she handled the situation. Rather, it is to ask some hard-hitting questions as we approach the segue of the Jewish calendar in which the Books of Life and Death are open and our deeds are examined, one tweet at a time.

In the aftermath of the social media maelstrom, Police Deputy Commissioner Sir Steve House noted the polite and professional conduct of the attending officers, and explained that the ‘stop and check’ was carried out because one of the officers had entered the car’s number plate into the digital recognition system incorrectly, and the system had subsequently traced the vehicle to the wrong address – a location over 200 miles away. He went on to bemoan a growing trend toward what he superbly nicknamed ‘trial by twitter’ – a trend steadily and insidiously eroding public trust in public institutions. The sheer ferocity of outrage and the speed of its eruptive expression in light of Butler’s social media upload had, Sir Steve lamented, made it almost impossible to process her complaint and any relevant disciplinary action in a fair, balanced and calm fashion.

I thought things had reached a watershed after the Kevin Hart Oscars scandal. Remember that? Even if you don’t, Twitter does. You see, in 2018 Hart was invited to host the upcoming Oscars awards ceremony. Within minutes of the announcement, tweets and one-liners he had composed eight years earlier which joked (badly – see below) about the LGBT community were trawled back into the public domain, and the avalanche began. One thing led to another, Hart rightly posted a heartfelt apology for the homophobic nature of his content, stepped down from the Oscars and that was apparently that.

 

Except it wasn’t. A month later, talk-show mega-host Ellen DeGeneres re-opened the conversation by suggesting Hart should reconsider his Oscars decision. Twitter responded with quite a backlash. Hart issued another apology. A few days later, he took to SiriusXM radio to apologise for a third time. Two days later, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert launched into a series of questions about the whole brouhaha. Only this time, Hart apparently hadn’t had his evening nightcap, and was significantly pricklier in his response:

“The situation is like an onion. No matter how many times you keep peeling it back, it’s just endless. I apologised. “Apologise again!”. I said, ‘I apologised before!’…” Apologise after that apology!”. It just keeps going.”

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As above, our task here isn’t to micro-analyse what Hart said or did. Rather, it is to highlight the unsettling and perhaps dangerous role that social media is evolving into: An unaccountable, uncontrollable hybrid judge, jury, prosecution and executioner of every misdemeanour under the sun.

Trial by Twitter.

It, together with other social media platforms, has totally redefined the way we look at wrongdoing, remorse and redemption. The Books of Life and Death are no longer abstract heavenly legends. They are here with us – hosted on a server in downtown Atlanta. And each inscription occupies no more than 280 characters. With an image or a meme to boot, if the ministering angels are really on point. There is no escaping our iniquities as journalists and bored teen-hackers scramble frantically to dish the dirt on everyone in any position of significance anywhere.

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Points to ponder:

  1. Has the advent of social media given our misdeeds a certain permanence? Even deleting your profile won’t do the trick: as long as said journalist/bored teen is quicker on the draw, they will have a screenshot of sin copied and saved faster than you can say ‘Silicon Valley’. And once saved to a server somewhere, that sin has effectively been weaponized, stored forever to be used in targeted character assassination or straight-out blackmail.
  2. Has it eroded our faith in the fact that people can change? One of the many oddities that struck me about the Hart uproar was the sheer length of time that had passed since he made those homophobic comments. Was what he said wrong? Undoubtedly. Did he mean it to cause harm? Quite possibly. But above all else: Did he have the capacity to turn over a new Vine and emerge a changed man? Definitely.
  3. Has the ‘like, share subscribe’ culture of social media created a dangerous illusion of overwhelming public support? Dawn Butler’s tweet seemed to garner an awful lot of attention. But look closer. 10,000 retweets and 32,000 likes. Even if we assume that those were two distinct groups of users, with no overlap (highly unlikely), that is still just 0.06% of the UK’s entire population. Again: I am not suggesting that Ms Butler’s grievance was invalid. Rather, I am merely echoing what Bari Weiss – former New York Times journalist – pointed out in her resignation letter: Often, the mirage of popularity on social media creates a false hysteria that blows the true significance of an event totally out of proportion and subsequently guides commentary and even policy in an endless positive feedback loop.
  4. Has social media assigned to itself the role of judge, jury and executioner, whereby the ‘appropriate’ atonement is prescribed by a digitally baying mob who all-too-often know only a fraction of the facts, a portion of the time? Consider this: Which recourse sounds better? Kevin Hart resigns from hosting the Oscars as a result of public pressure due to controversial anti-LGBT comments, or: Despite the uproar, Kevin Hart nonetheless hosts the Oscars and uses that platform to raise global awareness about LGBT rights and concerns? The answer to that question simply isn’t as immediately obvious as the Twitter horde would make seem.
  5. Has social media – as pointed out by Hart and repeated by Weiss – created a “fear of the digital thunderdome”, wherein heartfelt and sincere apologies are rejected out-of-hand by those who shout loudest and type fastest? Can there even be an end to the apologies if the whole world can demand and is apparently entitled to one? Is it even possible to apologise to the entire world?

Let us examine each of the above concerns through the kaleidoscope of Maimonides’ classic section on Teshuva/Repentance. In light of his approach, they rapidly become deeply, deeply worrying…

  1. Sin is not Permanent – At the core of the very rationale behind having a High Holiday ‘season’ at all is the unequivocal belief that God grants us a chance to start afresh every single year. In fact, Maimonides elaborates, there is no real need to wait until the Days of Awe to begin the process of repentance and rehabilitation – the gates are wide open all year round. A person could live their entire life in sin – only repenting with their dying breath. As long as that repentance was sincere, their slate is ‘wiped clean’. To view sin as indelible is to condemn humanity to an infinity of despair.
  2. People Change – Here is perhaps Maimonides’ most powerful statement. Not only do we hold precious the idea that – given time, experience and introspection – people do change, it too lies at the very core of what the High Holidays are all about. “What is complete repentance?”, Maimonides ponders, “To find oneself in the same situation as before, but [this time] resist temptation.” And in so doing, the erstwhile deviant demonstrates a simple fact: Who I was last time is not who I am now. Maimonides continues: “A true penitent should consider changing their name, as if to say: ‘That was the old me; now I am a totally different person.” To reduce the complexities, subtleties and magnificence of the human condition to perpetual inertia is to abandon hope that anyone can ever improve.
  3. The Repentance Process Cannot be Driven by Mass Hysteria – Here, Maimonides makes an intriguing observation: “The penitent who confesses publicly is praiseworthy, and it is commendable to let the public know his wrongdoings, and to reveal the sins between himself and his fellow to others”. Yet what stands in clear contrast to the publicity driven by social media is the direction of the flow of attention. This point is unambiguous: the choice to ‘go public’ with a sin is the sinner’s alone. For the masses to abrogate that choice and unilaterally ‘go public’ is to strip the sinner of all dignity, and all but make certain that he will (eventually) repent for entirely the wrong reasons, if at all.
  4. Atonement is Objectively Measurable, and Not Dependent on Public Opinion – One of the great mysteries of the repentance process is quite simple: How on Earth do we know if it worked?! Maimonides is quick to highlight this, using the second paragraph of his synopsis to describe how in antiquity the Yom Kippur Temple service featured tangible signs whereby the assembled masses would know if their prayers had been accepted. But nowadays? Fear not. If the remorse, regret and resolution to change was sincere; if the aggrieved has been approached and placated; if the sinner can enter into exactly the same situation and this time resist the urge, they can rest assured that their atonement is complete. Anything else is to forsake even the most well-meaning penitent to a lifetime of self-doubt and uncertainty.
  5. There is a Clear and Urgently Real Limit to Apology – This theme is rooted in one of the most tantalisingly brilliant segments of Maimonides’ piece: “He (the wrongdoer) is obliged to seek out the aggrieved and appease him and implore him until he receives forgiveness. If the aggrieved refuses to forgive and he (the sinner) has sincerely tried on three separate occasions to regain his favour, he (the sinner) may let the matter rest and move on with his life, since the sin is thereby placed on the one who refuses forgiveness”. Incredible. It is that last line that really delivers an uppercut to the Twitter frenzy. Briefly: to demand from the sinner a lifetime in apology is to condemn him to a socio-emotional prison, forever distracted, forever haunted, forever treading on eggshells. For society to function, we simply must be willing to forgive, even if we cannot allow ourselves to forget.

Where to next for the Twittersphere? Who knows. Perhaps a good place to start is to stop treating it all like gospel. The fact that self-respecting (or otherwise) journalists, politicians and legislators have fallen into the trap of believing that using Twitter to address complex subject matter is sensible, is laughable. Devalue your usage and opinion of social media! Keep it for Spongebob memes, cat photos and pictures of your perfect avocado-on-toast. Why should a realm that operates at terabytes-per-second be suitable for anything that carries greater nuance and depth? Second: spread positivity. Social media can be a nasty, vindictive, sanctimonious place – filled with virtual back-stabbing and digital brinkmanship. Focus on the good, spread that message, and you will start to gather quite a following of like-minded nice people. Third, do not allow social media to colour your view of the world. Listen to its content and take it on board, sure! But don’t get intimidated into changing your beliefs or convictions off the back of a couple of boosted posts. And if you’re feeling the algorithm’s bite, remember: 9 of the top 20 most-liked Tweets in history belong to South Korean k-pop group BTS. And their most liked Tweet only (only!) had 3 million likes. Does that mean you should start buying BTS albums? Maybe. Or maybe, it means there are as many as 7.5 billion people who don’t listen to them either.

As Douglas Adams so eloquently put it: Don’t Panic.

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[This article is adapted from a piece featured in Aish UK’s Rosh Hashana magazine, ‘Perspectives‘.]

About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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