What does accountability look like on the internet?
And is achieving it even possible on social media?
A question I’ve been thinking about for a long time is what accountability looks like online in the 2020s, particularly what it looks like when groups of people work together to seek ‘justice’ as a collective, bypassing traditional avenues in favour of more direct action.
The first thing to understand about the majority of these online collectives, like the one surrounding West Elm Caleb, are not made up of people who’ve been directly harmed by the person being targeted. This means that more traditional avenues of justice - through the legal system, for example, or even more unconventional methods like those recommended by proponents of transformative justice - are not available to them. Instead, the target is usually someone who posted something offensive, obnoxious, inflammatory, or just plain idiotic. Very rarely is the crime they’ve committed an actual crime.
Using West Elm Caleb as a case study - a guy who quickly went viral on TikTok after several women in New York realised they’d all been dating him at the same time, and realised he’d used the same pick up lines, date spots, and playlists on all of them - we can see how quickly things spin out of control when people view themselves as acting on the side of justice. While one user mentioned receiving an unsolicited nude photo from Caleb, the majority of videos on the subject have focused on his crime of dating multiple women at once, particularly scheduling a date with one woman on the same day he had another in his bed.
New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz posted a video critiquing the mass doxxing and harassment campaign that has gained traction since the first few West Elm Caleb videos; his identity has been revealed, and his employer has been contacted, all in the name of ‘justice’ and ‘accountability’. Justice for who? Accountability for who? Unless you were affected by his actions, you cannot seek justice for them, nor can you hold him accountable for them. Not to mention, this much hubbub over the crime of being a shitty dude seems disproportionate, and I feel like if we dug a little deeper into many people’s dating histories, we’d suddenly have to mobilise against many others for similar crimes against social etiquette.
Perhaps a less obvious example is one from last year, that of the “Couch Guy”, who went viral on TikTok after his response to his girlfriend surprising him at college was deemed insufficiently exuberant. He became a meme, but more than that, he became the subject of bizarre and intense speculation and armchair sleuthing that included body language analyses, diagnoses of psychopathy, and comparisons to convicted murderers (these examples are from an essay the Couch Guy himself wrote for Slate). After posting his own video reminding people that “not everything is true crime”, Couch Guy, whose real name is Robert McCoy, was accused of gaslighting.
Re-reading that essay made something click: I can absolutely see the influence of the increasing popularity of the true crime genre on the way people seek accountability online. People’s behaviour is no longer just unpleasant, it’s criminal, and demands repercussions and retribution. Being unpleasant online justifies being doxxed, having your personal information or that of your loved ones posted publicly for everyone to see. Individuals feel justified acting as judge, jury, and executioner, contacting people’s relatives or friends or employers in order to let them know that someone they know has posted something objectionable online, in the hopes that they face consequences in their offline lives.
Far from being a long bow to draw, it feels like a natural consequence of the seeming ubiquity of the true crime genre; traditional methods of seeking justice are notoriously unreliable and harmful, therefore taking justice into your own hands, both solving the crime and doling out the punishment you deem appropriate makes perfect sense.
Much of it is also simply the nature of TikTok specifically. Ryan Broderick put it perfectly when he wrote, “TikTok built a witch hunt machine and doesn’t really give a shit what people do with it. Its users have been trained to follow trending topics, forensically analyze each other’s content, and endlessly iterate and remix to build online clout that is now directly linked to actual personal wealth and success.
The same mechanisms behind West Elm Caleb led TikTok users to try and prove Train Guy did or didn’t have autism, attack a trans woman making dance videos who they thought was creepy, accuse Couch Guy of cheating on his girlfriend, claim people were being punched in the face at a random New York subway stop, and speculate wildly about unconnected missing women being murdered by Brian Laundrie. And those are just a few examples from the last six months!”
Another example from TikTok of online accountability in 2022 is Drew Afualo. She’s a hilarious and naturally engaging creator who has quickly become popular for duetting men who post openly misogynistic, racist, or fatphobic content on the app, calling them out and often causing them to delete their videos or even their entire accounts.
Seeing men panic and rush to cover their tracks after they’ve been called out by someone with such a large platform can be funny, but I’m often left to wonder: what’s next? Have their views changed, or has being called out and dogpiled only reinforced their existing world view?
Videos like Afualo’s don’t address any of the underlying issues that lead men to be sexist, racist, or fatphobic, and obviously I don’t expect a 26-year-old from California to shoulder that responsibility. But the popularity of videos like hers and the normalisation of dedicated and coordinated call out and harassment campaigns against people deemed problematic with seemingly little regard given to systemic solutions makes me wonder what the end goal of this kind of online activism is.
Do we want people to change, or do we just want them to take their noxious views offline, or to a forum where we don’t have to encounter them? If we want them to change, who do we feel bears the responsibility of facilitating and encouraging that change? If we want them to merely change forums, what do we think should happen to those who are obvious products of harmful and bigoted online echo chambers?
As Lorenz states, these kinds of mob-fronted campaigns don’t lead to any sort of lasting accountability or change. When you combine that with the fact that many of those involved in online harassment campaigns are simultaneously calling for people to lose their jobs (appealing to authority to dispense justice, in this case, a representative of the capitalist state) and police involvement (particularly in the case of Prater), you’re left to wonder whether they’re actually invested in creating lasting change, or merely interested in upholding the status quo, the existing justice system that already harms so many.
These thoughts inevitably lead me to the work of abolitionists and those who believe in transformative justice. A future without policing, without prisons, and without snap judgements and condemnations is the only one that makes sense to me. Believing in that future means believing in the power of people to change and grow as people, to learn from their mistakes. It also means monitoring my own behaviour to ensure I’m affording people enough grace and understanding to undergo those changes; writing people off does little to incentivise character development.
Writing about Paula Rojas’ contention that “the cops are in our heads and our hearts”, Mariame Kaba says, “She contends that U.S. activists and organizers have internalized dominant ideas of how to organize that are based on a capitalist model which distorts the possibilities for true social transformation. The cop in our heads is therefore internalized capitalism.
I want to adapt Paula’s argument for my own purposes here. The fact is that for many of us, the ACTUAL cops are in our heads and in our hearts. We acquiesce to state power because it is easier than constantly resisting it.”
I would argue that this cycle of online call-outs and mob justice we’re trapped in does little except replicate existing power structures and dominant models of dealing with people we deem undesirable. Even if it is difficult for a group of young people to ‘cancel’ someone in any tangible sense, writing them off as a lost cause is basically confining them to the prison in our mind. We’ve ostracised them, we’ve performed justice, the job is done.
Micah Hobbes Frazier, a mediator who practices transformative justice, told Teen Vogue that a core belief of transformative justice is that all people are valuable. “We need to hold people in their humanity and their possibility to transform even when they've done incredible amounts of violence.” Dismissing someone, whether they’ve committed an actual crime or just a social one, fails to recognise their humanity and their possibility as a human being to change.
In a collection of essays about the NBC sitcom The Good Place, ethics professor Steven A. Benko writes, “The ethical laughter in The Good Place comes from the generosity in realizing that morality is not a destination. It is a journey, and the good person is the person who is trying to be good.”
Aristotle was writing about people’s capacity for growth and developing moral character a long-ass time ago, and we’re still discussing how to best go about doing that today. I don’t have all the answers, but recognising that other people are just as human as we are, and just as capable of making both mistakes and change as we are, is the only ethical starting point from which all other decisions should flow.