Interview with Prof. Cass Sunstein on 'lapidations' and online outrage

I had the pleasure of connecting with Prof. Cass Sunstein recently to discuss online outrage, public shaming, group polarization, and the associated challenges for deliberative democracy.

Prof. Sunstein is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University Law School. He is an expert in administrative law, and was previously responsible for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Conformity: The Power of Social Influences.

This is a pretty wide-ranging interview, and it begins with a description of what Prof. Sunstein calls “lapidations”: public stonings in the digital age. This phenomenon is familiar to any keen observer of the culture, but our language has not quite caught up. I’ll borrow liberally from his definition:  

Groups of people, outraged by some real or imagined transgression, often respond in a way that is wildly disproportionate to the occasion, thus ruining the transgressor’s day, month, year, or life. […]

In the most extreme situations, lapidation is based on a lie, a mistake, or a misunderstanding. People are lapidated even though they did nothing wrong. They might have made some kind of misstatement and so have been misinterpreted by reasonable listeners. Even so, they did not intend to say what they were heard to say.

In less extreme cases, the transgression is real, and lapidators have a legitimate concern. They are right to complain and to emphasize that people have been saddened, hurt, or wronged. The problem is that they lose a sense of proportion. They want heads to roll. Someone makes a mistake, or a foolish or offensive comment, and lapidators come out in force, often in a state of frenzy. Usually they are led by lapidation entrepreneurs, who have their own agenda. They might be concerned with self-promotion. They might be concerned with promoting a cause or with defeating an opponent, for whom the lapidation victim is taken to stand, or can be made to stand. […] Lapidation entrepreneurs may unleash something horrific.

For the targets of these online struggle sessions, the experience can be psychologically shattering (here I speak from experience). Public shamings are often accompanied by calls for a person to be stripped of their livelihood or public platform. And because the Internet preserves a permanent record of their public annihilation, they could be rendered unemployable far into the future. Their friends and colleagues may abandon them out of fear or self-preservation. Suicidal ideation is frighteningly common.

So why do people participate in the public destruction of others? 

We addressed a number of possibilities in this interview. One obvious answer is that the performance of outrage allows participants to signal their own virtues and tribal identity. It may also provide an outlet: for people who feel helpless or disenfranchised, it can serve as an ersatz (and ultimately unfulfilling) form of political participation.

Sometimes the outraged are acting on a genuine belief that their political or ideological opponents really are evil or morally abhorrent. Where this is the case, they may convince themselves that any means—no matter how dishonest or cruel—are justified to attack and degrade them. Some ‘lapidation entrepreneurs’ have other, unrelated motives: they may instrumentalize public outrage to achieve a personal objective, to promote themselves, or to settle scores.  

Another possibility is that lapidations are a way to enforce social norms. This is nothing new: every human society employs shame and stigma to signal limits on appropriate speech and conduct. One critical difference is that our modern public shamings are not always used to uphold inherited norms and prejudices, but to create new ones (based, perhaps, on mere abstractions). Small groups of people may treat newly emerged or contested taboos as though they are settled wisdom. And, having skipped over the persuasion stage, they move straight to coercive enforcement. In some cases, it is unclear whether the new values can be justified.

Lapidations exert a chilling effect on open inquiry, as even good faith dialogue can result in the ruination of a person’s career and reputation. When the critical examination of certain propositions is considered off limits, and when our public institutions are beholden to the loudest and angriest voices on the Internet, our capacity for deliberative democracy is at risk.