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Regional Interests

What’s Wrong With Social Media? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah Just Explained

Earlier this week, feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went viral after posting an essay titled “It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts.” (It garnered so much traffic so quickly, her website temporarily crashed.) In the essay, Adichie wrote about two students in her workshop who disparaged her on Twitter while also seeking to benefit from her name elsewhere. She also touched on the fallout from the problematic comments she made about trans women in a 2017 interview.

In her new essay, Adichie’s conclusions about the effects of social media—particularly on “young people”—were decisive. “There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion,” she wrote, “who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness.”

Adichie continued: “People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class. People who depend on obfuscation, who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra … And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.”

The author concluded: “I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.”

Adichie’s sentiments were immediately greeted with a swift wall of objection on Twitter that has, in the days since, been replaced by a wave of support and intellectual analysis.

Adichie’s essay effectively highlighted the nuance and humanity that gets lost in performative righteousness. But during Wednesday night’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah adeptly described the dark road that comes after trying to out-good people on the internet. In an in-depth analysis of social media etiquette, prompted by Chrissy Teigen’s apologies for bullying behavior online, Noah attempted to take a hopeful tone.

“I’m glad [Teigen is] owning up to being a horrible person online,” he began, “because that is what we want, right? We want people to be better and we want people to grow. … What really gives me hope is that, back when Chrissy was bullying people online, millions of people were cheering for her. But now, a lot of those people are criticizing her for that same thing that they cheered. … It shows you that society has evolved.”

Noah, without referencing Adichie’s essay, expanded on her observations regarding the online obsession with the “appearance of goodness.” He pointed out that the online compulsion to call others out for bad behavior often has a tendency to result in more of the same.

“What we have to understand,” Noah explained, “is that social media pushes people into being their most asshole-ish self. Roasting people, dunking on them, that’s how you get the likes. … Twitter sees when a few people attack someone, and they put that in the trending topics. … So then what do you end up with? You end up with millions of people looking to roast each other. To say the nastiest things they can think of, until they go too far, until all of a sudden the outrage they were a part of turns on them.”

Noah expanded further, saying, “That’s not a mistake. It’s how the system is set up. … There’s something about the platform that incentivizes people to be the worst versions of themselves.”

Together, Adichie and Noah’s analyses perfectly pinpoint the cycle of bullying that social media can, and does, perpetuate. In online contexts, the desire to appear honorable can obliterate reasoned discussion, in favor of tearing down others in a manner that’s both simplified and amplified because of the format.

This online calling out and piling on has long been dismissed on the right as “cancel culture”—a term that is inherently disingenuous given the continuing careers of people who’ve been “canceled.” (In an interview with The Sunday Times last week, Kevin Hart—whose positions were compared to Adichie‘s essay by some Twitter users—noted that he’d been “canceled, what, three or four times?”)

We have long needed an analysis of social media that allows for a spectrum between the left’s desire to hold others accountable and the right’s ongoing suggestion that any and all criticism be dismissed as so-called cancel culture. With Adichie and Noah’s sharp observations this week, we might finally be getting somewhere.

Copyright 2021 KQED