Mistakes

When Does Internet Outrage Become Outrageous?

When Does Internet Outrage Become Outrageous?
Image credit: Tom Woodward | Flickr

This month has already seen a fresh pair of public missteps quickly magnified by the Internet. But while one truly offended, the other seemed a victim of spiraling, aggregated outrage.

Last Wednesday an email sent out to incoming Barclays interns by Justin Kwan, a second-year analyst in the bank's power and utilities group, was published online. Titled "Welcome to the Jungle," the email laid out the "10 power commandments," covering everything from dress code (“Men: On your first day at the desk, it is customary to wear a bowtie and/or suspenders") to sleeping arrangements (bring "a pillow to the office") to etiquette tips ("have a spare tie/scarf or two around. You never know when your associate will run out of napkins").

First published by The Wall Street Journal, the email was swiftly picked up by a host of other outlets, which added their own color commentary and then republished the email in full. The backlash was swift: Kwan has since been fired, not only from Barclays but also reportedly from The Carlyle Group, an asset management firm where he was slated to begin work this summer. 

Fast forward a week, and we have another high-profile case of a person publicly putting his foot in his mouth. This time it's Tim Hurst, 71, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who, speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, told the audience: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” So far, while Hunt's comments have been widely mocked on social media, The Royal Society, where he is a fellow, has only distanced himself from his remarks, tweeting: "Tim Hunt's comments don't reflect our views."

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The two incidents share some commonalities: both were set into motion by the misguided, arguably downright stupid, actions of a person with some degree of authority, speaking to a group of mostly younger individuals. They also each touched on the pressure points of well-publicized issues, in Kwan's case the 24/7, strenuous workloads of junior bank employees and in Hunt's, the low percentage of women working in STEM fields and the sexism that often flourishes there.

But from even the most cursory of glances, the incidents are also very different. While Kwan's email was (bizarrely) taken at face value by outlets from Business Insider to Gawker, which denounced the email as "so degrading that its recipients can’t help but share it with the unwashed masses," it’s intention is an overt attempt at humorizing Wall Street stereotypes. Yes, the jokes aren't that funny and sending out a satirical email to future interns is a misguided move, but was anyone really meant to take the email seriously? Kwan's commandments advised interns to bring a tie/scarf to work so that associates can use them as napkins, for goodness' sake. In the postscript to the commandments, he writes: “Some of you have asked for training materials to study up on before you start. Love the enthusiasm. First, I would recommend reading the GS Elevator twitter feed for some social cues.” (Remember, the GS Elevator Twitter account was revealed to be the work of a bond executive who’d never worked at Goldman and lived in Texas.) The email, while poorly executed, was written in jest.

Hunt, on the other hand, clearly wasn’t joking. While he told the BBC that he was “really sorry,” his clarification that it was "a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists" leached most of the sincerity from the apology. And any lingering question of intent was put to rest by his follow-up remarks. "I did mean the part about having trouble with girls," he told the BBC. "It is true that people - I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”

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Kwan made a miscalculation: he sent out an email in an attempt to humorously (and somewhat douchily) welcome Barclays’ latest batch of interns. Particularly in light of the ongoing controversy surrounding junior bankers often brutally punishing schedules (some of the ‘commandments’ appear more satirical than others), it wasn’t a smart decision. But did he deserve to lose not one, but two jobs, for the misjudgment? As media outlets glommed onto the story – and it did made a good story, fitting neatly within the ‘bankers are evil and Wall Street is a hell-hole’ narrative that can drive clicks – the backlash against Barclays mounted and that’s ultimately what appears to have happened.

Meanwhile, Hunt’s comments reveal an authentically damaging attitude. Here is a prominent, Noble prize-winning scientist addressing a room full of science journalists, essentially dismissing women scientists on the basis that they distract their male peers with romantic entanglements and tears. “As a Nobel laureate, I know he's a human being, but he does have some sort of responsibility as a role model and as an ambassador for the profession,” Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at the University of London, told the BBC.

Despite the differences in intention, the incidents spurred similar outraged backlashes. At the time of this writing, Hunt is still a fellow at The Royal Society while Kwan is no longer an analyst at Barclays. (Update: Hunt has since resigned as honorary professor at University College London; he is still a fellow at The Royal Society.)

As Jon Ronson makes explicit in his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015), the Internet tends to lash out in a singular roar regardless of the severity of the infraction. Ronson's book is studded with examples, including ex-New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who was discovered to have fabricated quotes, and Lindsey Stone, a former U.S. careworker who was fired when a private photo of her clowning around at the Arlington National Cemetery publicly surfaced.

In the rush to catch a story’s wave – as individuals and media outlets alike jump onboard the shaming spree before its old news – context is easy to lose. 

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