At the beginning of 2017, I explained that I was going to be changing the way I picked what to cover in this column. “I fully intend to keep writing about jerks as well as con men and con women who have actual power,” I explained, but I was largely giving up writing about “unpleasant people who regularly behave poorly in public, who hold no official position of influence or respectability and who derive much of their power from media coverage of their unpleasantness.” I wanted to explain why I’d be stepping away from some stories that might seem like obvious targets for me to comment on, but the truth was, this was as much a personal decision as a professional one: I simply didn’t have the time or energy to spend being provoked by people who existed solely to irritate people who share my views, priorities and general outlook on the world.
The next month, Milo Yiannopoulos, who I’d used as a key example of the type of person that I was trying to ignore more strenuously, resigned from his position at Breitbart News after one of his attempted provocations — a defense of sexual contact between some 13-year-olds and adults — turned out to be too provocative not merely for the people he tried to disturb, but for the people who sponsored him. It was a worthwhile reminder that provocateurs often burn themselves out even without our attention and ire. But 2017 is closing on a note that reminds us that the Yiannopouloses of the world aren’t the only people who have figured out how to hijack our attention. And in 2018, as we manage our resources, we should be vigilant of subtler and more insidious efforts to raise our collective temperatures.
Two recent stories illustrate what we should be on the lookout for. In the first, an alt-right group claims to be responsible for using bots to post a large number of dismal audience reviews of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” that appeared on Rotten Tomatoes, an act of vengeance for everything for the franchise’s embrace of what the organization’s leaders term “the anti-mansplaining movement” and the possibility that some of the male characters could turn out to be gay.* In another, Sabo, an alt-right artist, put up a series of posters suggesting that Meryl Streep knew about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misdeeds (the implication being that she was somehow complicit) in an effort to punish the actress for opposing the Trump administration.
Both of these acts had a real impact.
Despite the known weaknesses of Rotten Tomatoes, the idea that critics and fans have dramatically divergent opinions of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” drove days of entertainment coverage (including a podcast appearance I did last week). The news that the alt-right fed that perception as an act of revenge for the franchise’s increasing diversity and emotional complexity will only further degrade a conversation about the movie that has too often devolved into suggestions that the people who didn’t like it did so for politically regressive reasons. And the poster campaign put increased pressure on Streep, who had to issue a statement denying she knew about Weinstein’s actions after actress Rose McGowan accused her of being a hypocrite and failing to speak out about Weinstein before.
Maybe if these cultural hacks hadn’t been effective, the people behind them wouldn’t have stepped forward. But either way, knowing the potential causes of that Rotten Tomatoes rating and the source of those anti-Streep posters inevitably changes the meaning of both things so dramatically that it would be better to know their origins before we talk about them at all. Maybe these stories aren’t fake news in the traditional sense, in that they’re both things that actually happened. It’s just that they don’t mean what they initially seem to.
So if the lesson I, and I hope some of you, took for 2017 was that we should look at who’s speaking before we decide to react, perhaps the lesson for 2018 can be this: The world won’t end if we wait long enough to figure out what’s driving a phenomenon that strikes us as suspicious. We shouldn’t let our brains get hacked any more than we should let ourselves be trolled.
*The Force theoretically flows from and through all living things, but I’m not sure that it’s canon that it can affect someone’s sexual orientation.