Flowers: The imaginary, destructive power of our social media

Published 12:55 pm Friday, October 22, 2021

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It’s very easy these days to say that social media is toxic. People act in ways they’d never do in real life, because it isn’t real life. They act like feral wolves, because they can. The Twitter police don’t carry guns, and their badges are imaginary.

In fact, social media is one big imaginary world, and we’re all way too wrapped up in things that don’t matter — the opinions expressed by strangers in public.

Last week, Jon Gruden’s life exploded because of some private email exchanges that he had between 2011 and 2018 with a colleague. The emails included comments that were objectively racist, sexist and homophobic, and it’s hard to figure out how to defend them. You really can’t. Gruden doesn’t.

But they were private conversations between two men, and they became public because of a wholly separate investigation into another individual suspected of wrongdoing. Gruden, who was not the target of that investigation, became the victim of what we’ve all seen over the past few years, something I call the Twitch Hunt. When the private comments became public, Gruden was essentially turned into a non-person. Matt Taibbi had a great column where he described Gruden as becoming increasingly invisible, like a ghost evaporating into the fetid air. Gone, done, cancelled. He wrote:

“Throwing the door open, I could still see him for a second in outline, like Wonder Woman’s Superfriends plane, crouching in my shirt-rack. Then, in a flash, he was gone. The shirts fell back into place. All that was left was a voice.

“Is this forever?”

“I’d put your over-under at nine years.”


I have friends who were canceled because someone believed that they’d overstepped some social boundaries, boundaries that are now delineated by the tech gods and their acolytes. It’s not that Twitter and Facebook make all of the rules, but they empower those with animus and hostility toward “this” or “that” to crush the inconvenient and non-conforming. Social media creates, and it destroys, because it has such immense power to influence the way we see the world. In doing so, it effectively changes that world.

You can no longer use certain words, because the Twitter armies will hunt you down and take your soul hostage if you do. You can’t express certain dissonant views about vaccines and masks, or the Facebook Stasi will sniff you out and tag your posts with disclaimers, the social media equivalent of being placed in the public stocks.

And if you dared to use racist, sexist or homophobic language with a friend in the privacy of your email (which of course was never private) you will be sentenced by the Star Chamber years after you transgressed. The sentence will be social oblivion.

I was canceled by a newspaper because the Twitter mobs forced the powers that be to silence me. So be it, I found another place, another bully pulpit, another microphone where more than one voice is permitted to speak. But others are not so fortunate. And many, many others who don’t have the money and the resources of a guy like Jon Gruden have not only been disappeared like a victim of some South American junta. They have been destroyed.

It’s all so ephemeral, and yet deadly. A person who we will never meet, and who made some bad comments to someone else we will never meet, is neutralized. None of it touches us, but we’re supposed to care.

Meanwhile, real life is happening, and we’re too busy looking at our phones to notice. But at least we can mark ourselves “Safe from Jon Gruden.”

Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at