The Narrative Is All

The case doesn’t matter. The narrative is all.

I am not interested in discussing the details of The Case. I didn’t follow it, and frankly I don’t care about a pair of rich people. What I do know and care about: social media, internet narratives, and online hate mobs, which I’ve been covering for the better part of a decade. And you don’t have to follow the case itself to see its cultural results.

Like the two similarly high-profile 1990s court cases adapted into television series by Ryan Murphy (this one’s only a matter of time), the verdict essentially doesn’t matter. Like those cases, this case became a televised media spectacle, a parasocial nightmare, and more importantly a proxy war through which to fight over larger societal issues.

By now it should be obvious that the reactionary right is highly active on the internet, and highly skilled in using the systems of the internet to control narratives and recruit followers. These people have spent years pushing back against progressivism, against LGBT rights, against voting rights, and crucially, against the #MeToo movement. They champion celebrities and politicians ranging from the merely “politically incorrect” to people with sexual assaults on their rap sheets.

Key amongst their goals is allowing their kind of shitty people to do their kind of shitty things with impunity, and key to achieving that is discrediting anyone who tries to call them out. You see it again and again and again, every time someone accuses a famous man of abuse. She’s crazy. She’s a slut. She’s evil. In this case, suddenly, finally, they had the perfect imperfect victim – someone with her own demons, with a public image just opaque enough to render unlikeable, and high-profile enough for the labels to stick in the public consciousness.

This narrative only succeeds with the help of willing collaborators. Some were in it for the spotlight, the money. This includes online content creators, who filled social media with edited highlights, memes, impersonations, and commentary masquerading as news, so as to get more clicks, more followers, more monetisation. It also includes the mainstream news media, who routinely highlighted “shocking” and “blockbuster” developments, before shamefully pivoting to regurgitating whatever People Online Were Saying.

The case doesn’t matter. The narrative is all.

Others were in it for the ideological boost. These are those who leap upon any major controversy, using lurid current affairs to draw people towards the right. Ben Shapiro’s conservative outlet The Daily Wire spent tens of thousands marketing articles on the case, hoping – as was the case with Breitbart and GamerGate – that it’d draw in new readers, who might get red-pilled to its other right-wing propaganda. Misogyny is a common gateway drug to other right-wing movements, and it’s certainly been deployed as such here.

Either way, huge portions of the population ended up getting their news, directly or indirectly, from influencers with zero journalistic accountability and enormous incentives for presenting sensationalised, biased coverage. To encourage “engagement,” social media sites and apps of all stripes throw viral content into feeds with wild abandon, and content creators typically fill their thumbnails with big, grabby headlines and lurid still frames. Even without clicking, audiences still passively consume those opinions, and every click, every hesitation during a scroll, is recorded and fed into an algorithm to push more of the same content. Combined with a horrifying lack of media literacy, this blurred line between news and entertainment, fact and opinion, it’s perfect recipe for disseminating a narrative driven by that most seductive of feelings: disgust.

And to a large degree, it’s worked. Celebrities have enormous influence on society, whether we like it or not, and this insane pastime has trickled through layers upon layers of it. I have, of course, seen the hordes of Twitter accounts, indistinguishable from bots to put it charitably, shouting down anyone who questions the word of their Lord and Saviour. I’ve seen friends reading the case as entertainment through a lens of naivete about how abuse cases typically operate (and how this was essentially the same thing with a higher profile). I’ve even seen abuse survivors buying into the narrative, heaping scorn on “that damned woman” for giving victims a bad name. It’s always the woman’s fault. Always.

The media circus is the point. Regardless of which way the trial went, it would not function as legal precedent. But it’s cultural precedent, and that’s just as powerful. I’ll be generous and say there were content creators out there who merely wanted to exploit a domestic violence case for monetary gain, but for many folks on the internet, the goal of the case was to put “bitches be lying” into the Overton window, forming a convenient rhetorical bulwark against calls to “believe women”. To intensify the implicit threat that accusations will be met with expensive legal action and/or a campaign of public humiliation carried out by a network of YouTubers around the world. Not only will they not be believed, they’ll be punished. Their trauma will be forcibly relived in public. Any perceived personality defect will be used as evidence proving they’re a lying whore. And they might even have to pay for it financially.

Even if it dissuades false accusations, as some have celebrated, for every false accusation (because clearly, the kind of fame and attention I just described is super desirable), a hundred victims will be shouted down or pre-emptively silenced. It’s already begun, both with celebrities and regular folk. And while there might be the odd case of a false accusation (because who wouldn’t volunteer for a public shaming and financial ruination just for the attention?), there is absolutely a well-documented epidemic of domestic violence and abuse. An epidemic that will certainly continue, with another tool, another couple words that can be hissed at anyone making a claim.

The verdict came in favour of the man, as it often does.

There will be appeals.

But the case doesn’t matter.

The narrative is all.