On Social Media, There is No One to Whom to Apologize

After his sexist, unfunny comments went viral and provoked a social media firestorm, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his honorary professorship and been kicked off the European Research Council. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, likewise a distinguished scientist, has also been personally and professionally battered:

“their house was doorstepped by reporters, says Collins. “One of them said that his paper had found my ex-husband.

He said it was all very juicy and I needed to get a response in. I didn’t, but I still had a sleepless night. In fact, it wasn’t that juicy. It was a story of a woman, me, who divorced one man and then married another, Tim. But it was still horrible.”

In addition, bodies such as the Royal Society – of which Hunt is a fellow – were pressing for him to make a fuller apology for his remarks in Korea. Within two days, the pressure had become desperate for both scientists. “Tim sat on the sofa and started crying,” says Collins. “Then I started crying. We just held on to each other.”

In watching another one of these social media condemnation cycles, it occurred to me that once these get going there really isn’t any way to stop them. When there were three television networks, you could do an interview with Cronkite and say that yes, you behaved terribly and you were sorry. The finite, definable, public figures and organizations who were criticizing you could then accept the apology and call off the dogs (particularly if you took the trouble to meet with them personally and apologize again). Your reputation would be deservedly dented, but at least your career and family weren’t destroyed.

Today, because thousands of people (maybe tens of thousands) are independently condemning the target of social media firestorms, there really isn’t any way to stanch the flames by owning up to your mistake. If you went on a TV show and apologized, most of the people who were gunning for you would probably never see it, and it would be practically impossible for you to craft individual apologies to every angry email writer and Twitter critic. All you can really do is wait for the storm to move on to the next target.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.