On December 3, 2017, 23-year-old Canadian porn actress August Ames became embroiled in a Tweet storm that would drive her to take her own life two days later. Her decision to drop out of a scene that she was scheduled to do with a male “crossover” performer (a guy who has sex with both men and women on camera) was perceived as homophobic by the masses of angry human beings that lurk on Twitter, even though she has appeared in many dozens of scenes with other women. Her ownership of a stance that others disagree with provoked a furious backlash.
One crossover star, Jaxton Wheeler, tweeted “the world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill. Either or we’ll take it” and he was backed up by an online lynch mob who peppered her with abuse and insults. On December 5 she sent out her final Tweet—”fuck y’all”—and was discovered by her husband, porn director Kevin Moore, soon after. Silicon Valley might peddle utopian propaganda that frames social media as some sort of dreamy promised land where information is freely shared and connections made for the purposes of our collective enlightenment, but over the past couple of years it has become abundantly clear that it has become an utter cesspit and the death of August Ames is a far more accurate representation of the reality of internet discourse. This is why, in my opinion, we should consider banning social media.
Although August’s death cannot solely be attributed to Twitter—indeed, Ms. Ames was candid about her battles with depression and the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, so she was quite clearly a particularly vulnerable individual—I firmly believe that had this incident happened 15 years ago, she would still be alive. As someone prone to making controversial, provocative statements, I’ve endured a sizable share of abuse online. Just several weeks ago an old article that I wrote pondering whether Japan might be the world’s most overrated travel destination got a second wind of life, and I opened Twitter to find over 100 notifications from disgruntled Japanophiles who took issue with the fact that I voiced an opinion that they disagreed with.
For hours new notifications kept rolling in, many of which contained insults and ridicule rather than reasonable rebuttals or well-thought out counterpoints. Their tone was overwhelmingly combative. Now I don’t expect any sympathy because I knowingly brought such a reaction upon myself, but even as someone who gets a kick out of poking people in the eye, I couldn’t help but feel the back of my neck tense up every time a new flurry of tweets came my way.
Social media platforms are designed to mimic slot machines as a way of getting users addicted to them. As a result, overstimulation on social media feels like sensory overload. I couldn’t help but feel mildly overwhelmed and a degree of aversion began to creep in. There’s something about Twitter that made all this hate feel much louder than a silent notification icon at the bottom of my iPhone screen. If someone with a lot less Twitter followers, much less of a profile and not nearly as many issues as August Ames can feel themselves begin to look away, I can only imagine how cornered she must have felt. Communication before social media lacked that instantaneousness; there was a buffer that made it seem more distant. Maybe Twitter and its users can’t conclusively be blamed for Ames’s death, but they can’t absolve their conscience completely.
I’m sure there are those who would accuse me of hysterically overreacting, but this is so much bigger than a solitary tragedy: over the past couple years we’ve seen social media distort our very perception of reality as it became a vehicle for fake news. Russian spy factories weaponized social media during the Brexit referendum in Britain and throughout the U.S. presidential election in order to undermine the western political order. Soon after Donald Trump’s victory, The Guardian pondered whether the Internet has become a failed state. Peer down the wormhole of Breitbart or 4chan or the myriad of misogynistic subreddits out there and it becomes quite clear that it has. Social media may have enabled mild conveniences but many are beginning to question whether we’ve reached a tipping point where it causes more harm than it’s worth.
But it’s not only the alt-right that have turned online discourse into a mud wrestling match in a puddle of proverbial diarrhea: supposedly high-minded social justice warrior types are clearly just as odious. After all, it wasn’t neo-fascists that drove Ms. Ames to her death, but people who seem to believe in tolerance so intensely that they’re willing to mentally lynch someone that deviates from their world view. Rather than spewing bile, Ames was ham-handedly referencing the fact that that gay and bisexual men make up a much greater proportion of HIV infection — roughly 70%, to be exact. This isn’t homophobia, it’s a scientific fact: HIV is 18 times more transmissible via anal penetration than vaginal sex. Her wording may have been untactful, but it was by no means hateful, yet she was bullied to death by people who would probably claim to have a deep concern for other human beings.
This shows that the cruelty that’s so rampant on social media has nothing to do with political affiliation. The anonymity and detachment from reality facilitated by the Internet clearly brings out a profound cruelty that lurks in the dark recesses of human nature, one that the light of an smartphone screen cannot illuminate.
To those who would disagree with me, I posit the question: why shouldn’t we ban social media? What have social media platforms added to human civilization that’s so indispensable that we should simply shrug off the fact that it makes the democratic process vulnerable to tampering by foreign agents? Snapchat filters, perhaps? Do the benefits of Timehop really outweigh the erosion of human civilization by fake news? Facebook might save us money on long distance phone calls because we’re able to stay in touch with distant friends and relatives, but it allows allows firms like Cambridge Analytica to harvest our most intimate personal data and use it to wage psychological warfare via those very same platforms that gave them said data in the first place. Bit of a crap trade-off, if you ask me.
Seriously, ask yourself: who has really benefited from the rise of social media? Silicon Valley robber barons, unremarkable influencers who’ve managed to monetize their minimal talents, marketers who are now able to invade our consciousness with targeted ads that most of us invest concerted effort into avoiding and, of course, the unimaginative masses who have nothing better to do with their lives than record inane Instagram stories that are forgotten quicker than they can disappear. The gains, by any measure, aren’t enough to offset society’s collective loss of dignity.
Of course I’m not naive enough to think that a social media ban will ever happen. We haven’t even been able to make a break with fossil fuels despite the fact that it’s making our planet uninhabitable. Money speaks louder than the sound of a thousand trolls shitposting in unison. The best we can hope for is that all decent human beings on social media decide to sign out permanently once the stench emanating from this raging dumpster fire becomes too much to endure any longer. That said, though, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.