Last Friday, during the March for Life at the Lincoln Memorial, a junior in high school became the target of society's collective hatred. Nick Sandmann was quickly dubbed a racist who embodied everything wrong in Trump's America, and became the subject of online vitriol and rage, from death threats to calls to dox him and his classmates.
The initial story fell apart by Monday. The narrative that pushed Sandmann and his fellow high schoolers as the bigots who'd mobbed an elderly Native American man was proven false, and the mea culpas began rolling in from outlets like The Atlantic and the New York Times. As The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan put it, "The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story."
So why did so many commentators, including elite journalists, jump to attack Sandmann armed with nothing more than an out-of-context video clip?
The traditional argument is that when we're online, we can be anonymous, and that encourages our worst impulses. As Likeable, a social media marketing agency, put it, "If you could steal from a bank and you knew no one could identify you, would you? Our identity helps keep our actions in check because we must be responsible for those actions afterward." Anonymity removes that check. But this explanation falls short. Most of Sandmann's attackers were loud and proud, not hiding behind anonymous profiles.
The truth behind these online pile-ons is almost completely the opposite. Online pile-ons are a very public form of virtue signaling, aided by the unique psychological triggers of social media. Social media platforms designed their products to trigger a neurological response when someone engages with your post. Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, says, "Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, we give you a little dopamine hit." Dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria and bliss, and we're hardwired to seek out hits of the chemical.
Unfortunately, an effective way to get dopamine-inducing likes and retweets on social media is to tweet savagely about your political opponents, because it gets your fans fired up. You also get points for being early -- social media rewards trend-setters, not followers. When college professor Reza Aslan tweeted about Sandmann's "punchable face," he was rewarded with more than 23,000 dopamine-inducing likes.
By contrast, calm and moderate posts rarely go viral. "Let's wait and see what all the facts are" takes may age well, but they don't viscerally engage fans' emotions. Getting the story right matters, and not just because getting it wrong reduces the credibility of journalists and news organizations. There are real victims to these online pile-ons. In the case of Nick Sandmann, powerful elites with hundreds of thousands of followers publicly attacked a high schooler whose ability to fight back was limited.
How can we stop our collective rush to judgment?
A good place to start would be to adopt the following policy when we're evaluating something our political opponents did that looks very bad: If the situation were reversed and it were my political allies under fire, would I rush to judgment, or would I look for additional context? If we'd do so when our allies were at risk of looking bad, then we have a moral obligation to do the same when it's our opponents.
When we're savagely tweeting about a breaking controversy, we should also take a moment and ask ourselves how our tweets will age if we're wrong. Tweeting about a high schooler's "punchable" face, as Aslan did, wouldn't look great even if Aslan was right that the high-schooler in question was racist. But as details emerged that contradicted Aslan's assumptions, his tweet began to look worse and worse. A few moments of humility ("What if my analysis of the situation is wrong?") could have saved a lot of journalists from looking bad while also preventing a lot of trauma for innocent high schoolers.
We're living in a brave new world where social media incentivizes savagery and a rush to judgment. A little cultivated empathy and humility could help.