A great article by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org talks about how Virginia Wolff’s private suicide note to her husband Leonard was misconstrued and manipulated by the media, back in the days of WWII. When Leonard wrote a rebuttal to the published note and its subsequent public commentary, the media further twisted the truth. From brainpickings:
But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Timesreprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.
Media twist isn’t new and it isn’t news. You would think respectable journalists at the time would’ve done a better job, but the significance of WWII shaded the large editorial bent on the reporting. Today, the significance of the anonymous online comment fuels similar behavior. Even as we move away from anonymous IDs into public sharing, we lose context as we post. We forget that there are real, live, struggling, humans on the other end. It’s easy to go for the quip, the acerbic taunt, the funny jab that will get us attention. After all, the culture of the Internet has always been one of sharp, witty one-upmanship. I’m not sure we can change this basic element, and I’m not sure we want to.
But we’re stuck in the mess of the editorialized Internet. I simultaneously fear and crave the push toward “real IDs” online. I’d love for some users to take some accountability for what they post but I worry the oppressed opinion will never have the freedom the early anonymous Internet promised. Anonymous opinions are central to democracy. We need a balance. We need less editorializing and more critical analysis, named or unnamed.
But perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps the real point of the Internet isn’t democracy. Maybe it’s totalitarianism, a loved Newspeak we’ll all adopt happily to avoid looking at any desperate, silenced, suicidal truth.
Photo and portrait: Christiaan Tonnis on Flickr