Twitter at Its Worst: WaPo Journalist Cancels Kobe Bryant

On Sunday afternoon, American basketball fans learned to their horror that former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was killed at the far too young age of 41, along with eight others, including one of his daughters, in a shocking helicopter crash in southern California. For the vast majority of sports fans, it was a time to reflect on his accomplishments as a legendary athlete, and from all accounts, a devoted family man. However, Felicia Sonmez, 37, a national politics reporter at the Washington Post, decided to go to Twitter and tweet a link to a 2016 article in the Daily Beast titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” A gesture, which between searching for the article and retweeting it, may have taken as little as 30 seconds or less.

Very quickly, Sonmez found herself staring down what Twitter aficionados call a “ratio.” The theory behind Twitter ratios is that if your tweet has many more comments than retweets, you may have expressed an unpopular opinion. By the time the dust settled a few hours later, Sonmez’s massive ratio on her tweet was over 23,000 replies to 605 retweets. Worse, many of those commenting excoriated her personally, suggesting she perform crude anatomical impossibilities, or commit seppuku for her bad timing. As with Sonmez’s original tweet, these replies likely took less than 30 seconds from reading her original tweet to switching into maximum outrage mode, typing an obscene reply, and hitting the publish button.

She must have known that by attacking a beloved public figure, she’d whip the anger-mob in a frenzy. As Glenn Reynolds wrote in his 2019 book, The Social Media Upheaval:

Social media (especially Twitter) is full of sound and fury, but usually it signifies, well, not much. People are angry on social media (especially Twitter) in no small part because so many people go there in order to be angry. Once the anger is discharged online, it’s very unusual for people to actually follow it up with concrete actions in the real world.

Sonmez would delete that tweet a few hours after publishing it. Along the way though, Sonmez apparently angered her boss, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, when she tweeted a screenshot (also deleted on Sunday evening) showing the full names and email addresses of some of those who piled on with the worst language. Baron suspended her, possibly because, as the prolific Twitter user Stephen “Redsteeze” Miller noted, Los Angeles is a big market for the paper, and plenty of Lakers fans viewed Sonmez, at least for a short time on Sunday night, as Public Enemy Number One. “Screaming RAPIST for everyone to see in the city of Los Angeles, while the wreckage is still burning is how you lose thousands of subscribers in that city,” Miller added. Baron would face a mob of his own, when the “Washington Post Union Blast[ed] Paper for Suspending Reporter Over Kobe Bryant Tweets,” as the left-leaning Washingtonian reported on Monday. As a result, by Tuesday, Sonmez’s suspension was lifted.

Flashback: #hasjustinelanded?

Particularly in terms of its massively skewed “ratio,” the Sonmez incident reminded many of what happened to then-30-year-old Justine Sacco, a New York-based PR rep, in December of 2013. As Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, wrote in December 2015 in the London Guardian:

Sacco tweeted to her 170 Twitter followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” The joke was intended to mock her own bubble of privilege, but while she slept on the plane Twitter took control of her life and dismantled it. She became the worldwide number one trending topic that night: “We are about to watch this Justine Sacco bitch get fired, in real time, before she even knows she’s being fired”, and “Everyone go report this cunt @justinesacco”, and so on, for a total of 100,000 tweets. Justine was fired, her reputation mangled. I recounted her story in my book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The chapter was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine. I’ve been keeping a diary of what happened next.

Condemnation began hesitantly at first, a little uncertain, like a consensus waiting to form: “The article did nothing but bring her back into the spotlight when we’d all moved on,” somebody tweeted. “Her dad is a billionaire,” someone replied. “I’m not too worried about her.” (Her father isn’t a billionaire. He sells carpets.) “That tweet didn’t ruin her life,” someone added. “Justine Sacco has a new job. Give me a break already.”

“After a year,” I thought when I read that one. “She got a new job after a year.” Nice people like us had effectively sentenced Justine Sacco to a year’s punishment for the crime of some poor phraseology in a tweet – as if some clunky wording had been a clue to her secret inner evil. The fact that she had managed to doggedly pull things back together after a year was now being used as evidence that the shaming had been no big deal from the start.

Sacco was a previously unknown person (as Ronson wrote above, she had only 170 followers on Twitter) who tossed off a Sarah Silverman-esque joke making fun of her own “white privilege” who saw her life turned completely upside down by a mob of people who were piling on with tweets that likely took just a few seconds to compose and publish. (“With help from Gawker Media’s Sam Biddle, who admitted he promoted the shaming in search of traffic – that cost her her job,” Glenn Reynolds added in his 2019 book.)

Live by the Mob

In contrast, as Bethany Mandel wrote at Ricochet on Monday, in an article headlined, “Live by the Mob, Etc. etc.,” Sonmez has quite a history of attempting to get other journalists canceled:

One of the most memorable long-form pieces of last year came in Reason from Emily Yoffe, and discussed the canceling of a journalist at the hands of #MeToo activists. I highly recommend opening another browser window to read it in full, but this is a relevant portion for our conversation today:

That day, [Jonathan] Kaiman saw that he had a message from an old friend, Felicia Sonmez, and assumed she was contacting him to offer advice. She wasn’t. She was writing to him about a sexual encounter they’d had the previous September that unfolded after a long, alcohol-filled day and night of partying. She wrote in part that “it has taken me a while to fully process what happened that night….I remember thinking your behavior was aggressive at the time; it’s taken me a while to realize that actually, that kind of forcefulness totally crosses the line into inappropriate behavior.”

Kaiman immediately called Sonmez, a journalist who had recently completed a year of Chinese language study and who now works for The Washington Post. Though he offered her an apology, he was shocked by her assertion. He says what happened was “a messy, drunken hookup,” one that they each pushed forward at various points. After that night, they had discussed the encounter; he thought they had thoroughly excavated an event that both agreed was a mistake, especially because Kaiman was in a relationship with Arneson at the time. But now Sonmez was telling him that Tucker’s blog post had galvanized her to reconsider it. They talked for about 20 minutes, with Sonmez telling Kaiman she was uncertain what she was going to do next.

What resulted is the utter ruination of Kaiman’s career and life, and it came at the hands of Sonmez.

That isn’t the first time Sonmez has taken aim at someone’s career, either. Sonmez tried, and failed, at taking out the Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan after she discussed the Kaiman situation on NPR.

Read the whole thing. Mandel concluded that “Someone with more grace probably would argue that two wrongs don’t make a right, but I’m having a hard time gathering the strength to defend Sonmez.” But Sonmez is back at work at the Post, and is now placing her executive editor Marty Baron in the barrel:

As the headline read at the Post Millennial Website yesterday, “The Washington Post reinstates reporter—she immediately tries to cancel her boss,” adding that “It’s a bold move to try to get the internet to attack your boss for suspending you after you’ve been reinstated. Basically she wants to blame him for her own bad judgment.”

There’s no doubt that when O.J. Simpson departs to the afterlife, his legal travails will be a significant part of his obituary. Anger at politicians, and in today’s post-objective media world, journalists who are seen rooting for a side (“Democratic Party operatives with Bylines,” to coin an Insta-phrase), similarly makes their obits fair game to those on the other side of the aisle of the deceased. Certainly, when Harvey Weinstein dies, reports of his debauchery will far outweigh comments about his diverse cinematic oeuvre. But what about superstar athletes whose initials aren’t O.J.? When and how is it fair to bring up reports of their alleged “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as Woody Allen would say? For a bit of contrast to Sonmez’s trainwreck, note that on Tuesday, the Associated Press published an article headlined, “In #MeToo era, Kobe and other athletes often get a pass:”

“There’s something about the instant gratification of having a game that night versus, say, being an actor and taking a year to make a movie,” said Courtney Cox, a former ESPN staffer who teaches a class on race and gender in sport at University of Oregon. “If (sports stars are) treated differently, part of that is the instant way they’re visible, and the way they are able to rectify and rebrand themselves” by the final buzzer of the next game.

In other words, winning makes up for a lot.

The case of troubled wide receiver Antonio Brown could be instructive. He was released by the Patriots earlier this season when rape allegations surfaced. The NFL is investigating the accusations, and not until that is over will we know what appetite teams might have to sign him.

Among the central questions in the Bryant story, and how his life is being remembered, is whether the pass he received in the obituaries and tributes was more about the passage of time than any bias toward him, or athletes in general.

Like the Post’s Sonmez, AP seems determined not to give Byrant that pass. The Associated Press has its own #MeToo agenda, canceling the career of 78-year-old opera legend Placido Domingo in a lengthy and carefully planned article this past August, illustrated with a variety of almost cartoonishly slanted photo choices.

But AP's article on Bryant was a thousand words long, and placed him into context alongside a variety of professional athletes, all the way to Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, and Donald Trump, and even a hyperlink to the Post’s own takedown of Domingo. That’s at least an attempt to perform opinion journalism, and not simply retweet an existing article before the bodies were cold.

Spectator USA (the American-themed spinoff website of the longtime haven for UK Tories, the London Spectator) published a piece by Amber Athey, their new Washington editor, titled “The left’s real cause is muzzling its opponents,” on Sunday, a few hours before Bryant died, and Sonmez attempted to “cancel” him even in death. As Bethany Mandel wrote above, Sonmez has a long history of attempting to cancel others who disagree with her #metoo themed worldview. She will likely learn nothing from the Twitter trainwreck she set in motion, but for the rest of us, it was perhaps the most egregious example of social media at its worst since the mob devoured Justine Sacco in 2013.

Because of the now hypersonic pace of the news cycle in the era of Twitter and other social media, the Sonmez incident will likely be forgotten, perhaps within the space of a few days, as the outrage mob moves on. Marshall McLuhan's famous 1960s aphorism was that “the medium is the message,” and this week has been a reminder that Twitter’s primary messages are anger, outrage, and the speed and ferocity both can be ginned up, a dramatic, and not at all healthy change in media culture.