During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, an explosion devastated Centennial Olympic Park. Amidst the mass panic, only one person died—though over one hundred were injured.
“The first three days, I was supposedly their hero—the person who saves lives. They don’t refer to me that way anymore. Now I am the Olympic Park bombing suspect. That’s the guy they thought did it.”
The death toll would’ve been much higher if it weren’t for the heroism of one man: a security guard named Richard Jewell. Discovering a green bag containing a pipe bomb, Jewell alerted police and helped clear out the area shortly before the bomb exploded. For a few days after the bombing, Jewell was hailed as a hero—and rightfully so.
Jewell’s fame as a man who risked his life to save others quickly faded, however, after it was revealed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the FBI was treating Jewell as a suspect in the bombing. For several months, Jewell’s life became an American nightmare, as Marie Brenner wrote in her landmark Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell.” During this time, Jewell and his mother, Bobi, were under intense scrutiny by both the media and the government.
Jewell wasn’t cleared until October 1996, after an investigation revealed the real bomber to be an extremist Christian terrorist named Eric Robert Rudolph. Rudolph was eventually arrested in 2003 and charged with the bombing.
Despite Jewell’s redemption, the ordeal would haunt him till his death in 2007. “The first three days, I was supposedly their hero—the person who saves lives. They don’t refer to me that way anymore. Now I am the Olympic Park bombing suspect. That’s the guy they thought did it,” he reported to Brenner. Jewell later fought back against the press, filing several lawsuits and winning most of them.
Jewell’s struggle has now made the big screen, with the recent release of Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, which has received mostly favorable reviews. It is ultimately a story of a man wronged by the very forces he trusted his whole life; Jewell’s reputation was effectively ruined by how the media and the government conducted themselves.
And it all may have been worthwhile—were we to have learned from the lesson of Richard Jewell. But we haven’t. In fact, a case could be made that it has only gotten worse and that the “trial by media” tactics of mass media have only evolved into trial by new media.
TRIAL BY NEW MEDIA
For a long time, Americans were dependent on newspapers and television for their information. Now, thanks to advances in digital technology, information is transmitted at supersonic speed. The information environment of social media is the lifeblood of many public individuals, with celebrities, journalists, politicians, and commentators occupying a vast amount of real estate in this digital world.
Social media has democratized the ability to try by media—and it’s independent thinkers who are suffering.
Although incredible in terms of the reach and availability, social media has problems all on its own—and there’s no end in sight to these grievances. One of the biggest issues that has been exacerbated by social media is the incitement of mobs, driven by social media’s inherent echo chamber and culture of anonymity.
In this era of “cancel campaigns,” anything could happen—as it did for Steven Crowder and Charles Murray—for whatever reason the mob deems justified. For something as simple as making a litany of bad jokes, you risk losing everything, especially given how social media is integral for many people. Negative exposure on any digital medium could spell trouble for someone’s public persona and their livelihoods.
In the case of Richard Jewell, the renegade media personnel who followed bogus intel in an attempt to produce a story were punished through public backlash and Jewell’s legal actions against them. But now, there is no analogous repercussion for the attacks on character that victims of social media mob justice face.
We have seen examples of mob media martyrs like Brett Kavanaugh and PewDiePie, where narratives took precedence over evidence or explanations. Social media has democratized the ability to try by media—and it’s independent thinkers who are suffering.
SUBTLE EXTINCTION OF CONSERVATIVE CONTENT CREATORS
In a 2008 study by the University of Leeds, it was shown that “it takes a minority of just five percent to influence a crowd’s direction—and that the other 95 percent follow without realizing it.” Those who use social media to orchestrate these trials are among the sheep that blindly follow the orders of others.
So long as creators are demonetized, demonized, and made pariahs by the social media mob, their livelihoods are at stake.
However, this kind of behavior reaches far beyond the grasp of loose social media agitators; it is now being unleashed by the companies themselves. A prominent case is YouTube, which has faced large amounts of criticism over the removal and demonetization of right-wing videos and commentary. Even platforms like Patreon, where content creators receive donations from fans to help fund their activities, have faced criticism for removing controversial creators from their site. The direct targeting of an individual’s livelihood is a mainstream occurrence. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is an executive who has been adamant in this crusade against “hateful content.” Wojcicki, who will never be held to the same standards as the creators she is fighting, is celebrated by the media who declare that she is “nurturing the site’s creativity, taming the hate and handling the chaos.”
“The chaos” is an accurate description of the content environment Wojcicki has to reckon with, but not because of the disorder big companies like YouTube are trying to control. They are, in fact, the ones creating the chaos—devastating the lives of individual content creators who are victimized by smears. So long as creators are demonetized, demonized, and made pariahs by the social media mob, their livelihoods are at stake. It is now not enough for someone to be criticized; they need to be ruined for their trouble.
REMEMBER ALL THE RICHARD JEWELLS
The hardship endured by someone innocent like Jewell is one amongst a myriad examples of trial by media. They range from supposed devil-worshiping daycare centers to exonerated sports teams who were accused of rape—innocent victims in the schemes of mob politics.
We should remember those who have been wronged by the media and those whose lives have been made worse by social media. The mob should never get its satisfaction. If the mob can come for a poor soul like Richard Jewell, they can come for you.