There are lots of reasons to be critical of our social media spaces. But Twitter can also be a power equalizer. This is what we want from a digital public square.
“Twitter is a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens declared before flouncing from the site. Stephens felt pushed to leave Twitter by a tsunami of mockery and ridicule. His more-in-sadness-than-in-anger farewell tweet, in which he sententiously apologized for his own role in Twitter hostility, frames his virtual razzing as part of a toxic call-out culture that degrades civility and loudly honks amidst the ruin of temperate discourse. Twitter is a “sign of civilization’s end,” as Stephens’ NYT colleague Bari Weiss lamented with characteristic civil temperance.
As is their wont, Stephens and Weiss are both wrong. Twitter has its problems, but the determined, sustained raspberries directed at Bret Stephens are not among them. On the contrary, Stephens deserves every bushful of raspberries that he receives. In the past, powerful pundits like Stephens could sink fatuously into their lifetime sinecures, certain that no one at their cocktail parties would ever bring up their intellectual laziness or general ineptitude. And then they go on Twitter, and suddenly people who don’t have to kowtow to them for professional perks or advancement are in a position to say to them “Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, you suck.” And Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss completely melt down. And it is glorious.
So why does Bret Stephens suck? There are a whole host of reasons, from his embarrassing history of climate change obfuscation to his recent effort to shame Spanish-speakers as un-American (which he defended not as an expression of his own opinion — though a reasonable person could read it that way — but as sympathy for people who believe it, which isn’t better). But in this instance, in particular, he sucks because he tried to get a professor fired for daring to criticize him. How dare you criticize Bret Stephens of the New York Times?!? Who do you think you are, peasant?
Dave Karpf, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, responded to a light-hearted tweet about bedbugs in the NYT newsroom with a light-hearted tweet of his own. “The bedbugs are a metaphor,” he wrote. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” It got no retweets and did not tag Stephens. Someone either brought it to his attention or (most likely) he found it while searching for his own name.
Most of us, seeing a tweet like that about ourselves, would probably shrug, or even chuckle. Stephens, though, is not most of us. He is an affluent man who has been told he is important, valuable, and intelligent incessantly throughout his life. His father was the vice president of a chemical company, who sent his son first to the prestigious Middlesex boarding school, then to the University of Chicago, and on to the London School of Economics. His career has been one success after another; he was deputy editorial editor at the Wall Street Journal and editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post. He has finally come to rest at the Times, where his ex-wife is the editor of the book review, and his current wife is a freelance music critic.
Stephens was touted as a diversity hire because he’s a Republican. But in fact, as his personal connections with the paper make clear, he’s just another affluent, centrist-y white guy like David Brooks or Thomas Friedman, who went to the right schools, know the right people, and get the right jobs from other affluent and powerful people like themselves. That is the bedbug life cycle — eat, go to an Ivy, lay eggs, receive rapturous praise. Nothing and no one is going to interfere with that on Bret Stephens’ watch.
So Stephens sent Karpf an outraged email. Stephens ostentatiously stated his affiliation with the Times in the header, before launching into his sad tale of woe. He declared himself “amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people.” He then went on to dare Karpf to come to his house, meet his wife, and call him a bedbug to his face. It is beyond parody (though, obviously, on Twitter, many people have tried to parody it. And good for them.)
The less funny bit is that Stephens copied Karpf’s provost and emailed other university officials. The email wasn’t just a personal whine; it was an effort to alert Karpf’s bosses and get them to silence their rude employee, who had dared to have some fun at the expense of his betters.
Luckily Karpf has tenure, and there is no sign he is going to be disciplined at work. But some professors have suffered real consequences due to controversial tweets. Donors complained after Steven Salaita criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestine harshly on Twitter, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew his offer. This month, a North Carolina State University official was forced to resign from his administrative position after harshly (but by no means threateningly) criticizing Republicans. Stephens was trying to get Karpf in trouble, and any reasonably informed person would be aware that this kind of trouble can have serious repercussions.
Stephens’ effort to silence Karpf is especially egregious because he has positioned himself in the past as a free speech martyr. In one preposterous column, Stephens suggested that people making fun of him on Twitter were analogous to French revolutionaries guillotining their enemies. He has also given talks on the necessity for free speech.
“The worst way of dealing with hateful speech is to try and shut it down,” Stephens insisted last year at the University of Michigan. “The answer to hate speech is more speech. Hateful speakers thrive on controversy that some universities thoughtlessly afford them by trying to ban them. Censorship is oxygen to hate speech.”
Stephens was referring to left-wing protests against right-wing campus speakers. But the truth is that student protesters have little power to silence big name speakers, who have lots of outlets. You can’t stop Bret Stephens from getting his message out by chanting “bedbug!” at his next speaking gig. (Not that anyone should do that. Heaven forfend.)
By contrast, most people in the past would have had little recourse if a powerful pundit decided to try to shut them up. If Stephens had tried to contact Karpf’s provost thirty years ago, Karpf might not have been fired, but he wouldn’t have had a good way to push back either. Stephens can use his column to berate his haters whenever he wishes, but most people don’t have a large public megaphone like that. If the powerful try to intimidate you in petty ways, how do you hold them to account?
The answer in the past was, generally, “you don’t.” That’s too often still the answer now. But now, sometimes, if you’re a little lucky, you can tweet.
Karpf talked about Stephens’ email on Twitter, and other, larger accounts quickly picked it up. Some pointed out that black writers and women writers and black women writers receive a daily deluge that’s much worse than “bedbug.” Others just made fun of him. Soon the topic was trending. A trending topic is newsworthy — which meant that lots of outlets published stories about how ridiculous Stephens was, and how he tried to bully a critic into silence. Slate even ran an insightful “Q&A With the Man Who Called Bret Stephens a Bedbug.”
Stephens wrote an email in which he tried to use his large platform to stomp on a critic. And then, thanks in part to Twitter, Karpf was suddenly not just a bedbug to stomp, but a person who could speak back from a number of platforms of his own.
Current free speech discussions often frame free speech as about truth-seeking. Everyone supposedly speaks freely, and the best ideas win out. But free speech as outlined in the Constitution is less about finding the best ideas — which don’t always win out anyway — than it is about accountability. The powerful would prefer to send emails in private and squash their critics behind the scenes. If the people you are oppressing can’t speak up, then your power is unchallenged, and you can be as horrible as you wish, to whomever you wish. This is why, for example, ICE targets journalists for arrest and detention. If no one knows what ICE is doing, no one can stop them.
Bret Stephens isn’t ICE, obviously; he’s one asshole, not an out-of-control government agency. Still, Stephens’ brand of assholery is hardly unique. Earlier this month Stephens’ colleague, NYT editor Jonathan Weisman, emailed writer Roxanne Gay, her assistant, and her publisher in an effort to get Gay to apologize to him for publicly suggesting some of his tweets were racist. I’ve interviewed Weisman about his recent book on antisemitism, which I admired. But just because you write a decent book doesn’t mean it’s okay to email writers to try to get them to be quiet.
The NYT demoted Weisman. Whether Stephens will face any consequences is unclear. He went on MSNBC to double down, insisting that the tweet comparing him to a bedbug echoed the dehumanization of authoritarian regimes. (Twitter criticized and mocked him for that too.) For its part, George Washington University responded to the effort to intimidate one of its professors by… offering Stephens an invitation to come speak on campus. Institutions like to suck up to powerful people—which is why those powerful people are so rarely punished when they behave badly.
So Stephens may not actually suffer an professional censure at the Times. But because of Twitter, his ridiculous, intimidating email is now part of his public history. He’ll have to reckon with his abuse of power every time he tries to claim he’s a free speech thought leader. That’s worth something, not just because he deserves it, but because it lets powerful people know that there may be consequences when they are horrible hypocrites and condescending jerks.
Twitter can, of course, also be horrible. The same dynamics that make it easy for people to tell Bret Stephens that he’s a doofus also make it easy to scream anti-Semitic slurs at me, or for hordes of hateful bigots to dump garbage in the mentions of any woman who dares to have an opinion online.
But many people on Twitter rising as one to tell Bret Stephens he’s a crawling pest isn’t a bug in the platform. It’s a feature.
Noah Berlatsky is a writer whose work has appeared in CNN, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, and other places. Follow him on Twitter @nberlat.