/ 12 June 2022

OPINION| Social media: The new Star Chamber

Star Chamber
Place of woe: A photograph of an unknown artist’s illustration of the Star Chamber, circa 1800. Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Star Chamber was a royal tribunal established in England in the late 15th century during the reign of the Tudor kings. Named after the design of the ceiling of the room which housed it, the original intention of the Star Chamber was to curb the excesses of the nobility and the politically connected, whose position in society may have meant the ordinary courts would be reluctant to enforce the law against the ruling class. 

However, the Star Chamber swiftly became a means for the king and his henchmen to suppress religious and political opposition to the monarchy by relying on anonymous complaints, forced self-incrimination and suspension of due process to convict those brought before it.

These abuses eventually led to its abolition in the mid-17th century. The excesses of the Star Chamber are even said to have influenced the due process provisions of English common law and the fifth amendment of the US Constitution, guaranteeing the rights against self-incrimination.

Wind the clock forward by some 400 years and there is a new iteration of the Star Chamber emerging; namely social media. Like the Star Chamber of old, social media was born with noble intent. Not being subject to state or institutional control, social media served a useful purpose to facilitate the spread of news and opinions free of the editorial biases of traditional media channels. 

It also served to mobilise citizenry against oppressive regimes, such as in the case of the Arab Spring and provided a platform for those, without power, to disclose malfeasance that would otherwise have been suppressed by powerful institutions. 

However, as in the case of the old Star Chamber, having discovered its power, the users of social media have found it a useful tool to attack anyone who dares to disagree with their worldview. Those unlucky enough to appear as the “accused” in the New Star Chamber face the same evils that characterised its predecessor, namely: anonymous allegations, lack of due process and punishment without trial. 

A prime example of this new Star Chamber is the recent case involving Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, which was fought both in the courtroom and on social media. The extent to which the jury in that case were influenced by the social media storm surrounding the matter will probably never be known but the poor outcome for Heard in the courtroom mirrored that of the social media jurors who had long decided Heard was the villain.

Writing in The Atlantic magazine, journalist Anne Applebaum provides numerous examples of journalists, academics, business leaders and social commentators whose lives have been ruined purely for being perceived to have acted contrary to the new social norms. A New York Times editor lost his job after he published an op-ed from a right-wing senator criticising violence during Black Lives Matter protests. 

In another incident, an academic who was recorded agreeing with the need to support poor-performing black students was made to resign after being accused of racism, despite the clear intentions to the contrary. 

Closer to home, Professor Adam Habib was made to apologise after he mentioned a racial slur online when identifying a race incident even though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing by his employer. 

As The Atlantic article points out, what seems to be driving the rush to accusation, judgement and punishment on social media is an increasing intolerance for discomfort for anything that challenges the accusers’ worldview. And who creates more discomfort than academics, journalists and business leaders? It is therefore not surprising that these are the primary targets of the new Star Chamber. 

This intolerance for discomfort is often driven by the algorithms that power social media. These algorithms are designed to direct users further down the rabbit hole of whatever worldview they seek to reinforce in what is called engagement-based ranking. Social media companies are well aware that the more times someone is exposed to something, the more they like it and seek it out. What is lost in the process is the appreciation for context, perspective and a tolerance for other points of view. 

The irony is that many of those seeking to deny due process to the “accused” on social media are often the very persons or groups who fought against the denial of such rights for their constituents. This has led one commentator to liken the current cancel culture to the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, when those at the forefront of overthrowing the previous regime guillotined anyone perceived to be threatening the new one. 

As with the French Revolution, because the new social codes are not yet fully entrenched in society, those at the forefront of the social revolution seem concerned at a possible fightback by those questioning its excesses. This requires swift and harsh punishment without an opportunity for the accused to defend themselves or their point of view.

Often the accusers are those engaged in virtue signalling to demonstrate to their social media followers their adherence to the new social codes, without actually having to do anything constructive about it. 

Still others are citizen journalists willing to exchange another person’s life and livelihood for 15 minutes of fame in a “gotcha” moment. And then there are those seeking to simply get one over on their teachers, professors or bosses knowing that merely accusing someone on social media is likely enough to convict them in the eyes of many.

One Twitter engineer who worked on the retweet button later lamented that this feature was tantamount to handing a loaded gun to a four-year-old.

As dictators around the world know, you need only punish a few high-profile individuals for the many to start to toe the line and self-edit. The Rolling Stones will no longer perform Brown Sugar, author Sebastian Faulks says he will no longer physically describe female characters in his novels, and as Applebaum points out, and who knows what manuscripts and academic papers remain in the bottom drawer out of fear they may be taken out of context. 

In the workplace too, employee and manager interactions are increasingly influenced by the race and/or gender of the participants rather than the subject matter of the conversation. 

Those who stand accused before the new Star Chamber report a swift descent into ostracism by friends and institutions concerned they may be the next target. Should they insist on their innocence or refuse to resign or apologise, they face a re-examination of all their past actions through new lenses, which did not exist at the time. 

As one person put it, the worst 10 seconds of your life ends up on the internet and will forever define you in the eyes of the world.

But it is not just weaponised wokeness that is responsible for the New Star Chamber. Those on the right of the political spectrum are equally to blame. Dare to mention gun control in the United States and those defending the second amendment are quick to forget the first amendment. Criticise police excesses and you are “pro-crime”. 

The causes of the woke and the not so woke may be different, but the social media tools are the same: name, shame and deny the opportunity to explain.

The very subject matter of this article requires it to be pointed out that the tragedy of the excesses of social media is that those genuine cases actually deserving of censure are lost in the general scramble to characterise every incident as deserving of the same treatment, no matter the facts. 

Curing the excesses of social media will require the realisation that discomfort is good and drives change. The reality is that the new social codes have taken hold only because of the discomfort with the old ways. However, history has shown that the adoption of new social codes is never instantaneous and, ironically, the more they are seen to be forced upon a society the longer they take to be adopted. 

Arguably, the excesses of the French Revolution led swiftly to a return to dictatorial power when Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France a mere 15 years later. Similarly, the Republican Party-led backlash in the US may result in “Emperor” Donald Trump once again ascending the throne. 

Like the Star Chamber of old and the Reign of Terror, the fight against the excesses of social media has started. Companies like Meta and Google are facing regulation and are under scrutiny for the algorithms that direct users to increasingly narrow and polarising perspectives that drive many social media excesses.

Ultimately, curbing the excesses of social media will require a recognition that, just like the Star Chamber of old, the rights of the “accused” should not be suspended at the door to the Twittersphere. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.