I teach classes in strategic political communication. Every week, for the last seven years, I have begun each class session with a simple question: “What happened in the news this week?” The idea is to draw out lessons about how strategy and power work in the digital age. I often joke that it is my job to have a professional opinion about the latest Twitter storm.
But then Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, emailed me on Monday night, cc’ing my university provost, to scold me over a milquetoast joke I had made on Twitter about bedbugs at the Times. I’ve never been a fan of Stephens, so when I saw the news about bedbugs at the newspaper and everyone joking about it, I contributed a joke about Stephens. His email was a bizarre overreaction (he was offended that I called him a metaphorical bedbug) — my joke had gotten no traction on social media, and was pretty tame — so I posted about his response on Twitter. Something clicked, and the story went immediately viral. The original joke had zero retweets and nine likes. It now has 4,700 retweets and 31,200 likes. I have spent the past two days in the center of the viral media controversy, instead of observing with interest from the sidelines.
(People are calling me the bedbug professor. I really hope that name doesn’t stick.)
Naturally, I’ll be talking with my class about it this week. When the dust settles on this silly episode, here are three lessons I think we can take from it:
This was never about civility; it was about power. Bret Stephens cc’d my provost because he wanted to impose a social penalty on me for making jokes about him online. That isn’t a call for polite, civil, rational discourse. It’s an exercise of power. He wanted me and my employer to realize that I had offended an important voice at the paper of record. When powerful people demand civility from those with less power, what they are really saying is that they expect obedience from their lessers.
This was never going to go well for him. I’m not sure what Stephens hoped to achieve with his email to me. He has done this sort of thing before. But he really needs to learn not to abuse his status to threaten random Twitter users. What Stephens should have realized, and what every student in my class learns, is that digital media provide a wider tactical repertoire for mounting political campaigns. Of course I was going to respond to his outlandish email by sharing the experience on social media. Of course his overreaction would be far more interesting than the original joke. We’ve known about this since 2005. It even has a name — the Streisand Effect. When a person in power tries to repress online content, their actions will lead more people to see that content.
This was fun, but it could have gotten scary. Part of why this story has gone viral is that it is about so little. The daily news is terrible. The Amazon rainforest is burning, the president retweets white nationalists, the economy looks like it is heading for a recession… By contrast, Bret Stephens, the author of “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort,” couldn’t handle the slightest discomfort when he saw speech about himself online. The stakes are low here, while they are terrifyingly high elsewhere. But it’s worth keeping in mind that these viral media stories are usually much worse for everyone involved. I am a tenured white male professor. I have taken remarkably little online abuse as a result of this episode. If Stephens had directed his message to one of my female colleagues, they would have faced much more online vitriol. I’ve had zero death threats. Many women with a public platform receive a death threat with their daily morning coffee. This particular episode was pretty low-stakes, but we still have a lot of work to do here.
I keep thinking back to the catchphrase from Spider-Man — with great power comes great responsibility. Social media changes how we exercise power.
This story will be forgotten in a week. Stephens will have a new nickname; my classes will be slightly more popular. But the lesson here is about power — how we build it, how we deploy it, and how we use it responsibly. I hope my students learn something memorable from it. Perhaps Stephens will, too.
David Karpf is an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.