A wrong pronunciation or clumsy actions that suddenly have major consequences. That’s what the documentary is about Social tribunal by director Doortje Smithuijsen, who previously zoomed in on the dark sides of social media with her films. In the documentary people speak from left to right who have themselves been ‘disgraced’, and sometimes still suffer the consequences. From an anti-racism activist, who was fired after an innocent-looking sidewalk chalk campaign and still needs protection, to Ian Buruma, who left his prestigious job as editor-in-chief at New York Review of Books lost after posting a piece by someone accused of sexual misconduct in the #metoo wave.
Buruma recalls being called a “hostile, nasty divorce” after an online storm of outrage over his publication. One minute he was at the cultural peak and the next he was being dragged through the mire on social media and, as a result, out on the streets.
He is not the only one, says reputation expert Willem van Lynden, who expresses his concerns in Smithuijsen’s documentary. People regularly knock on his door who have been nailed to the digital pillory. ‘Traumatic’ for those people, according to him. “Years later, they are often still afraid to say something. They avoid initiatives because they are afraid that what has once been written about them will fail again.”
“Sometimes a fuss can be helpful in serious misconduct, but often someone just made a stupid decision or it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances,” he continues. “I have a hard time sticking that to someone so many years later.”
Because it sticks to you once you’re ‘infected’ by Google. “You can ask Google to remove anything about what comes up when someone types in your name, but the company usually doesn’t. For a female client of mine, if you googled her, texts like “I’d still pull my dog off it” and “there were camp guards more sympathetic than her as a supervisor” after she left somewhere with an online-reported conflict. Then you just get a ‘no’ from Google, even seven years later. And finding a new job is a problem.”
‘Cancel culture’ has been a popular theme in recent years. Artist duo KIRAC, consisting of Stefan Ruitenbeek and Kate Sinha, also like to play and provoke with this subject. Invitations to them have been withdrawn several times after there was a stir on social media about their statements or films.
For example, during a try-out of one of their films, they recently lifted the ‘cancelled’ artist Juliaan Andeweg on a horse, which has no longer been welcome anywhere in the art world since he was accused in an article of rape and assault.
They wanted to ‘uncancel’ him. A storm of online criticism followed.
Ruitenbeek speaks of a ‘medieval spectacle’. “He arrived on that horse, everyone fell silent and people started cursing and hiding, not wanting to be seen with him. While it was such a symbolic moment. I wondered: are people going to lynch him and pull him off the horse? That silence you feel before aggression was fascinating.”
Ruitenbeek mainly sees cancel culture as ‘pulling the monkey off the rock with resentment’. „You are placed outside society, but outside which society? You are still allowed to wash glasses, which Andeweg is doing now. So you are just no longer allowed in the ‘good’ society, not in the ‘important’ society.”
Ultimately, Van Lynden expects everyone to have to deal with the digital pillory. “Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, but so do most of the people who come to me for help. If more people experience it or see it in others, we as a society can decide when this is ready.”