Saturday, July 14, 2018

#PlaneBae, public figures, social media narratives and responsibilities

A mere four years ago, which seems like a couple of generations in terms of internet reading, Pastor Mark Driscoll sat down and gave a video address in which he said a bunch of stuff.

Mark Driscoll from a video statement July 21, 2014

In addition, I really am blessed to live in a land where the law allows me to have freedom of speech, to have freedom of religion, to have freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. That means we get to assemble, and I get to open the Bible and teach whatever I believe to be true. But it means that others have that same legal opportunity. They have that same freedom, and so, and so others are free to, to say things as well. And being a bit of a public figure I don’t have the same… try to get this right, protection sometimes as a private citizen, because I’ve made myself a public figure.  [emphasis added] So that’s just sort of a blessing and the complexity of the great opportunity that God has given me as a Bible teacher and a pastor, especially in an age of technology, which I praise God for. In addition, we, we can’t respond to everyone but we’re willing to learn from anyone. And this means that even as issues arise or criticisms come, I want you to hear that we do consider those, we pay attention to those, because we want to learn from those. And so while we can’t respond to everyone, we are willing to learn from anyone. We want this to be an increasingly healthy, godly, loving church, and, and anything that helps us to achieve that, we want to receive that as, as a gift ultimately from our senior pastor the Lord Jesus.

As Mark Driscoll has continued to be a celebrity Christian (and, I suppose, also some kind of pastor as he understands that term), he has clarified that because he made himself a bit of a public figure he does not have the same protections that are available to a private citizen because he sought to be a public figure. 

I have had occasional complaints made about this blog for discussing Mark Driscoll at such length over the years.  I have also had comments in other contexts made that, oh, well, see some guy like Driscoll could just lawyer up and then this blog could be shut down.  Well ... no ... it's not quite that simple.  I made a point of discussing things for which Mark Driscoll made an emphatic point of addressing in mass and social media for the record in the United States.  Not all Western style democratic societies have what we know of as the First Amendment, disputed as its meaning and applications can be.  Which is to say that, no, Mark Driscoll didn't really have a legal case to say that I or Warren Throckmorton or other people did not have the legal protection to use our First Amendment rights to comment on things Mark Driscoll has said and done as a self-selected public figure. 

Why bring this up?  Well, #PlaneBae is why.  As Terry Teachout was writing a few years ago, we don't fully appreciate just how recent social media is in publishing platform terms and we are certainly not up to speed on the ethical consequences and implications that such pervasive use of social media can introduce.  That was a few years ago.  The "PlaneBae" situation may simply bring this to the fore for people who, for whatever reasons, had not already been thinking about stuff like whether or not you can or should transform what you see on a passenger plane into a meet-cute social media narrative.

I don't use Twitter and find the platform kind of loathsome.  So I haven't actually looked at whatever #PlaneBae is.  But in a way I don't feel like I need to not because the "what" is beneath looking at (though I do feel that way, if anyone is asking); no, the concern I have had is about the "how".  Having written a few thousand words on Mars Hill and its idolization of social media I figure I can just link to those earlier posts.

So ... for those who haven't gotten up to speed


Blair deleted the original #PlaneBae posts earlier this week and apologized for what she said she had come to see as an invasion of the strangers' privacy.

"The last thing I want to do is remove agency and autonomy from another woman," Blair wrote in her apology. "I wish I could communicate the shame I feel in having done this, but I truly feel that at this point my feelings are irrelevant."

While Blair was busy blocking critics on Twitter, many others attempted to shout to the millions of Twitter users the thread had attracted that this wasn’t some meet-cute romance story. Blair, knowing nothing about the two passengers’ personal lives, sexual orientations, or private business, projected a false narrative onto them in order to go viral.
The woman in the thread reached out to Blair directly and gave a statement to the Today show making it clear that the tweets were misleading and that she wanted to be left alone, yet Blair posted a video encouraging her followers to seek out the woman’s personal information.

Somehow, after all of this, fans of the thread still remained adamant that no wrong had been committed. “We do it everyday to celebrities. No difference. Outrage culture is so dumb,” wrote one Instagram user below a BuzzFeed News post on the story. “It was harmless, and it’s over. Seriously,” someone else said. “Why is this such a big deal?” asked another. “It’s not an invasion of privacy.”
But it is an invasion of privacy, and the woman’s statement proves just how harmful such an act can be. Despite the fact that she did everything in her power to remain anonymous from the moment she became aware of the thread, she still had her personal information and address revealed and received so much harassment that she quit social media.
The fact that she made her statement via a lawyer suggests that she may have plans to sue, something many people on Twitter support. Whether she receives compensation for the damage inflicted, her saga offers a lesson about viral fame and consent. Blair issued an apology for her actions on Wednesday. Perhaps users will think twice about sharing a viral-romance Twitter thread again.
Reflecting on the aftermath of the #PlaneBae saga, one man on Twitter wrote, “Nobody told us that our ‘15 Minutes of Fame’ would include shaming, insults, threats, etc. And that we might not have even asked for it.”

There is a difference and the difference is between someone, like a Mark Driscoll, who has actively sought to be a public figure to influence social and economic currents and has more or less said so by dint of decades of literally preaching, and a private citizen who may work (of necessity) in some kind of publicly observable capacity who has not, all the same, sought to be what's identifiable as a public figure.

Legal protections for private citizens are different for those given to public figures.  One of the most important distinctions is in defamation, what are called libel and slander definitions.  The simplest and most amusing distinction for these was articulated by J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi's first Spider-man film:  slander is spoken, in print its libel! 

There have been a few outraged Christian advocates for Mark Driscoll over the years who have claimed this blog was a place for slandering Mark Driscoll.  No, because it's not slander and it's not even libel, either.  If advocates for Mark Driscoll could find even a single sentence published here attributed to Mark Driscoll in a first-print first-published edition that was, as originally published, somehow misrepresented I'm happy to go back and make a correction and issue a statement.  To date no one from Mars Hill has ever indicated that I've ever misquoted Mark Driscoll in any way.  I recall that steve over at Triablogue once wrote to the effect that the easiest way to make Mark Driscoll look bad was to simply quote him accurately and in context and Driscoll torpedoed his own reputation all by himself. 

But, and this point clearly cannot be emphasized enough in the wake of something like #PlaneBae, a person like Mark Driscoll chose to make himself a public figure and sound off on a variety of hot-button issues.  A woman who takes a trip on a plane who is transformed into the basis for a meet cute narrative has never been that kind of person unless she has already become a public figure beforehand.  Celebrity is not something retroactively imputable to a person. 

This is a point which those who make their bread and butter livings by writing online constantly may not be able to fully appreciate.  Sure, if you spend countless hours writing on the internet platforms of mass or social media it might seem like no biggie.  It's arguably because those who have sought out social media or mass media participation are not thinking that the default for a "normal" citizen is to NOT pursue that level of media engagement.  The "normal" person is not seeking to be a celebrity or a public figure in the sense of arriving at a lower and significantly more lax approach to definitions of libel and slander. 

Conversely, there's a flip side.  People like Mark Driscoll discover this over time, that once you pursue addressing hot button issues on mass and social media to the point that you do become a public figure there aren't really any "take backs" for that status once you've reached it.

There's something else I've been thinking about with the passing of Steve Ditko. The press has predictably described him as "a recluse".  Turns out that being "a recluse" means refusing to be photographed and refusing to grant interviews to journalists for fifty years because he believed his work should speak for itself without his having to explain himself or his biography.  If that is what defines a person as a recluse then everyone in the United States who isn't granting interviews to journalists is a "recluse".  As I was writing in the wake of news of Ditko's death I think it's far more accurate to say that he wasn't a recluse but a man who appreciated the significance of having a pre-social media conception of a private life.  Over at Comic Book Resources there's a piece, for those who read CBR, about how Ditko was known to talk freely and comfortably with people in the comics industry and that people could go find where he lived and talk with him.  He wasn't a recluse, just a man who declined to give journalists interviews.  It may say something important about the nature of journalism that the default description of a legendary comics writer and artist who wouldn't grant interviews is that he was a "recluse".

Reminding the internet-reading world that Steve Ditko was not at a recluse is not a minor observation to make in the wake of #PlaneBae, which is a snafu that has come about because of writer.  I love writing, obviously, and I write about things that are important to me and ... maybe ... sometimes important to other people.  Granting preliminary consent is important.  If a source isn't willing to go on record you can't use that source's information in a story, to put it in journalistic terms. 

Now it does not just so happen my journalism professor once advised that what you will find is that just because one source isn't willing to go on record doesn't mean you can't often find the same information in an on the record setting elsewhere.  That simple observation was the foundation of a majority of what I have blogged about the history of Mars Hill. 

What one person declined to discuss as a private citizen it turned out was stuff that Mark Driscoll would talk about from the pulpit or a James and Gina Noriega would talk about to the Seattle P I.  And thus it was that Andrew Lamb's identity as the center of a disciplinary incident at the former Mars Hill was possible to discover on the basis of their own social media usage.  We live in an era in which, people give away the privacy they think they are clinging to by dint of their own social media habits.  If a blogger like Wenatchee The Hatchet could be confused with "doxing" people by people too ignorant of media usage and definitions of public vs private figures it's potentially a sign that, among other things, so many who use social media do so in too exhibitionistic a way to understand what they have sacrificed for the sake of having a Twitter account or a blog in which they reveal who they are as a form of literary authenticity that gives away their roles in a disciplinary incident at a now defunct megachurch.  Among the losses people who went to Mars Hill have experienced, besides ended marriages and careers and reputations, one of the most impossible to measure is the loss of private citizenship in the sense of not being able to be a topic of interest for a blog like, well, this one.  Wenatchee The Hatchet can be a repository of what people who went to Mars Hill blogged and tweeted and posted to publicly accessible social media platforms for the record because the people who did all of those things did not always appreciate the significance of what they were putting out there, for the record, and in principle forever.  Even mark Driscoll himself seemed to only belatedly discover the significance of what he had given up in his quest to be a celebrity Christian.

A world of writers can also be remiss in understanding the significance of what is given up and a story like the fall out of #PlaneBae can be a necessary reminder to those of us who write that the "normal" response of a private citizen is to want to stay a private citizen even if writers might prefer to transform everything around them into "art" as it seems suitable at the time. 

I wrote all the things I wrote about Mars Hill because I was dealing with people who used social and mass media to engage the public sphere; and, of course, I wrote because I believed what that empire of people was doing was something I considered harmful; but I also made a point of trying to be very careful to not dredge up things that were not in social media and mass media.  Scrupulously alert longtime readers will probably even know I sat on a few things or took things down even if, by rights, I could have just left stuff up or run with everything I knew.  But there's sucha thing as having compassion, which is frankly not something I was convicned the leadership culture at Mars Hill had much of.  It's god to show mercy and have compassion even when dealing with what seem ike ruthless brand-focused empires.  The sheer tonnage of leaks that came to Wenatchee The Hatchet by people with access to The City didn't come from nowhere.  But I digress, as usual.

The cautionary tale nature of #PlaneBae is worth considering at some length but I don't want to keep writing more variations on stuff I've already written about.

If anything I might venture to say, with a joke, that in light of a #PlaneBae snafu it makes it all the more salient what people who get liberal arts degrees actually know about distinctions between public and private citizens.  Do you want to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt getting an English degree and after all that not know the private/public citizen distinction and then inadvertently catalyze a #PlaneBae crisis? 

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