America has awakened. Or gone woke. So has American journalism, or much of it. Only two decades ago, boycotts of unpopular ideas and the people who held them were confined to extreme newsletters, obscure journals and college campuses, where students have long taken pride in shutting down provocative speakers.
But the decline of “legacy” newspapers and the growing concentration of power and influence in the hands of Big Tech – primarily Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter – have enabled those behind these causes to exert far greater influence.
While social media and digital platforms feature more diverse views of dramatically varying quality from more people from across the globe than ever before, they have also empowered as never before individuals and small groups of critics to bully and silence views they deem politically incorrect.
Posts on Twitter calling for activists to “rise up” in response to perceived intellectual and cultural offences instantly go viral. Online shaming, callouts, doxing (digging up and disseminating dirt on targets and foes) and so-called “cancel culture” writ large have become the order of the day.
Such online intimidation often results in grudging conformity and silence, and not just among journalists. Many shop owners in riot-plagued Portland, Seattle and New York have posted “Black Lives Matter” signs on their boarded-up store windows. Many undoubtedly sympathise with the mass uprisings in May sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd.
A shocking video of a cop’s knee on Floyd’s neck triggered not just months of protest against police brutality and America’s lingering endemic racism, but sweeping demands for greater social justice. However, some others posted signs simply to prevent their businesses from being looted and trashed.
Meanwhile, the list of cancel-culture victims and targets continues to grow. What began with the targeting of Nineties sexual predators such as America’s TV dad Bill Cosby, the late Michael Jackson, and media mogul Harvey Weinstein, soon spread to those accused of thought crimes.
Comedian Shane Gillis was hired and quickly fired by the television network NBC for defamatory comments about Chinese Americans, LGBTQ people and women.