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Is trial by Twitter fair? The tweets that shook Hollywood and what happened next

Last month, Disney abruptly fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn after a series of abhorrent tweets from his past were posted online. Ardent and angry voices spoke out about the decision, some in defence of Gunn and others in defence of Disney. Twitter users have been locked in a fierce debate ever since. Weaponised Twitter has been targeting powerful individuals for a while, sometimes efficiently, other times not so efficiently. Here Mandy News looks at the good and the bad sides of trial by Twitter and asks the question; to what degree should people in positions of power be held accountable for the things they say and do online?

15th August 2018
/ By Sahalie Donaldson

twitter james gunn harvey weinstein GETTY

Over the past two years, social media has had a decisive role in holding powerful figures accountable for their actions. Various actors, directors, producers and other celebrities have been ousted from their positions due to online pressure.

And it all started with a tweet.


On October 15 last year, after sexual harassment allegations flooded out against super-producer Harvey Weinstein, American actress Alyssa Milano wrote the following on Twitter: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. Me too. Suggested by a friend: If all of the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”


The response was enormous.


According to Time Magazine, “in the week after #MeToo first surfaced, versions of it swept through 85 countries, from India, where the struggle against harassment and assault had already become a national debate in recent years, to the Middle East, Asia and parts in between.”

From there, the #MeToo revolution surged through the world toppling tycoons and uprooting moguls. 


Gross abuses of power simmered beneath the surface of every industry for centuries. And Hollywood was no exception. Sexual harassment and abuse loomed like a great shadow across the entertainment industry and the women and men who spoke up shone a spotlight on those issues. With their accusations, the glitzy exterior of the television and film world’s fractured, cracked and shattered.


Time Magazine wrote: “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who's been quietly enduring for years.”


The events of 2017 brought actual, decisive, action.


In November, actor and producer Kevin Spacey was fired from Netflix’s House of Cards and removed from the already-completed Ridley Scott film All The Money In The World after sexual misconduct allegations were made against him.


American film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused by over 80 women of sexual misconduct, was swiftly banished from Hollywood and is facing criminal investigations.


Following accusations from over 50 different women, stand-up comedian Bill Cosby was found guilty on three different counts of sexual assault in April 2018 and, as a result, was sentenced to thirty years in prison.


These are a few instances among dozens.


Until the age of social media, many powerful individuals were regarded untouchable. They built up empires while threatening, hurting and coercing the vulnerable.

Now, social media gives the marginalised and silenced a voice.


A tweet is a tweet, no matter the source. Hypothetically and scale aside, a post from a sixteen-year-old fast food worker calling out her abuser has the same ability to start conversations as does a famous actress’s #MeToo tweet.


Social media allows individuals to spread their stories. In fact, many speculate that Cosby, Spacey and Weinstein would have remained unexposed and unpunished if their accusers allegations hadn’t gone viral in social media.


In those, and many other cases, “weaponised” social media delivered justice.


However, trail by Twitter is evolving, and one has to wonder if, in some cases, it is dangerous.


Kara Swisher wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times: "Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google’s YouTube, have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age. All these companies began with a gauzy credo to change the world. But they have done that in ways they did not imagine — by weaponising pretty much everything that could be weaponised."


She continued: " They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another, and turbocharged that discord to an unprecedented and damaging volume.They have weaponised social media. They have weaponised the First Amendment. They have weaponised civic discourse."  


Recently, Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn from the upcoming third and final film in the franchise after a series of offensive tweets from almost a decade ago resurfaced on July 19.


The tweets are abhorrent and joked about things like child rape and paedophilia. Given that Guardians of the Galaxy is a series that appeals to young audiences, the subject matter is especially disturbing.


Upon their resurfacing, the lewd tweets spread quickly and outrage sprung from all corners of the internet.


Everything moved swiftly after that. Gunn was scheduled for an appearance at San Diego Comic Con, but less than 24 hours after the tweets broke, Disney released a statement denouncing the former director and announcing his removal from the film.


"The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James's Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio's values, and we have severed our business relationship with him," said Alan Horn, Walt Disney Studios chairman.


The situation is complicated.


For one, the source. Gunn’s tweets were dug up by self-proclaimed "new right" "American nationalist" media personality Mike Cernovich and One America News Network's Jack Posobiec. The two men released screenshots of the decade-old tweets on their Twitter accounts.


A search of Gunn’s Twitter account shows that he frequently uses the platform to critique US President Donald Trump and engage in online sparring matches with pro-Trump accounts such as those owned by Posobiec and Cernovich. For the duo, the re-posting of the tweets was likely a political move.


Cernovich clarified his actions later that day. In his tweet, he mentioned American political parties and wrote: “Republicans refuse to hold hearings into Hollywood casting couch practices. Democrats won’t stand up to Hollywood. It’s time for them to do this. Starting tomorrow we will be contacting members of Congress to demand they hold hearings into Hollywood casting couch and child grooming practices.”


Gunn’s outspoken account was an easy target for the attack, however, Cernovich and Posobiec’s motivations don’t change the things he wrote.

Another thing to consider, Gunn faced similar criticism six years ago around the time Disney hired him for the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.


Gunn apologised to GLAAD, The Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation, in 2012 for an offensive blog post he had written the year prior. The now-deleted post was called The 50 Superheroes You Most Want To Have Sex With. In it, Gunn used homophobic and sexist language. His apology to GLAAD said: “It kills me that some other outsider like myself, despite his or her gender or sexuality, might feel hurt or attacked by something I said.”


A change.org petition circulated in 2012 calling for Gunn’s dismissal from the upcoming franchise because of the blog post. It wasn’t uncommon knowledge, yet Disney still hired the director. 


Disney’s abrupt treatment of Gunn is also in direct contrast to how they dealt with Pixar co-founder John Lasseter. Lassester, best known for his work on Toy Story, Cars and A Bugs Life, was accused by several different women of sexual misconduct. 


According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lasseter sent out an apology memo and stepped down. On Friday, June 8, Disney announced he would take a consulting role at the company until the end of the year and would leave permanently at the beginning of next year.  


Unlike Lasseter, Gunn never had any allegations against him and was fired over decade-old tweets. One might find it confusing that, of the two, Lasseter was treated with more mercy.


Since the news broke, Gunn conducted himself respectfully. The director issued a solemn apology on July 20 writing: “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don't reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”


Gunn’s statement continued to say that he accepts the business decision and takes full responsibility for his actions.


He hasn’t tweeted since.


Another thing to consider, is that most of the people calling for Gunn’s release don’t know him personally. Those that do, have in large part defended the former director.


On July 30, Gunn’s co-workers including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Sean Gunn, Pom Klementieff, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan released a joint statement calling for his reinstatement. In it, they said they didn’t condone the things he said in the past, but he has changed and is a good man.


One paragraph reads: “The character he has shown in the wake of his firing is consistent with the man he was every day on set, and his apology, now and from years ago when first addressing these remarks, we believe is from the heart, a heart we all know, trust, and love. In casting each of us to help him tell the story of misfits who find redemption, he changed our lives forever. We believe the theme of redemption has never been more relevant than now.”


Actress Selma Blair, who Gunn publicly supported when she shared her Me Too story, also leaped to his defence. She even deleted her Twitter in an act of support and told TMZ: ”I’m not defending jokes that offended people or not, but things are taken out of context and this just happens to be someone who I know his character."


Gunn isn’t the only one fired over something they posted on Twitter, either.


The ABC sitcom Roseanne was swiftly canceled on May 29 when the show’s namesake, Roseanne Barr, tweeted that former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett is the product of Muslims and Planet of the Apes.


Barr’s comment was repugnant and indefensible. But should Gunn and Barr be equated? Are they the same? 

Roseanne Barr twitter tweets GETTY
Roseanne Barr's show was cancelled due to her racist tweets

Weaponised social media and call out culture aren’t effective if they don’t take the specifics of a situation into account. Should jokes made in poor taste 10 years ago be equated with a racist or homophobic slur tweeted yesterday? Neither should be condoned, but that doesn’t mean they are the same.

The biggest issue with “Trial by Twitter” is the lack of rules. The verdicts are often inconsistent. It happens quickly and furiously, and so many individuals weigh in, that shows – or careers – are cancelled before all the facts are broken.

Comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah came under fire July 22, when an Australian photographer tweeted a video of a standup routine he did in 2013 insulting aboriginal women.

Noah wrote later that day: “After visiting Australia’s Bunjilaka museum and learning about Aboriginal history first hand I vowed never to make a joke like that again. And I haven’t. I’ll make sure the clip from 2013 is not promoted in any way.”

Unlike Gunn and Barr, Noah’s employer Viacom didn’t comment. In fact the comedian didn’t face any adverse reactions. Nor did he in 2015, when he was named a host on The Daily Show and people accused him of anti-semitic and sexist tweets, according to Time.

Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon deleted his twitter account and posted an apology July 23 after a vulgar video of him simulating raping a baby doll surfaced on Twitter.

The clip was from 2009 and, like Gunn, was posted with a political takedown in mind, according to Huffpost.

In response to the tweeted video, parent company Adult Swim issued a statement that pardoned Harmon while distancing itself from the offensive material: “At Adult Swim, we seek out and encourage creative freedom and look to push the envelope in many ways, particularly around comedy. The offensive content of Dan’s 2009 video that recently surfaced demonstrates poor judgement and does not reflect the type of content we seek out. Dan recognized his mistake at the time and has apologized. He understands there is no place for this type of content here at Adult Swim.”

On July 26, a Twitter user dug up a decade-old tweet from Comedian Sarah Silverman.

The tweet read: “Hey, is it considered molestation if the child makes the first move? I'm gonna need a quick answer on this."

Silverman didn’t apologise amid the public outrage and wrote: “Some very odd people R saying I'm a pedo, re: a joke from a time not that long ago when hard absurd jokes by comedians were acknowledged for what they were – jokes – not a disingenuous national threat to people fake-clutching their pearls.”

Other celebrities and people in positions of power seem to be watching. Star Wars director and producer, Rian Johnson deleted over 20,000 tweets July 25 leading some people, including website The Mary Sue, to speculate what he could be hiding.

Johnson tweeted back to The Mary Sue and wrote, “No official directive at all, and I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything that bad. But it’s nine years of stuff written largely off the cuff as ephemera, if trolls scrutinizing it for ammunition is the new normal, this seems like a “why not?” move."

Holding public figures accountable isn’t the issue. Many cheered when Weinstein was arrested in May. The problem is mob mentality and unchecked rage.

The Guardian’s of the Galaxy cast summarised it gracefully. In their joint statement, they wrote: “There is little due process in the court of public opinion. James (Gunn) is likely not the last good person to be put on trial. Given the growing political divide in this country, it's safe to say instances like this will continue, although we hope Americans from across the political spectrum can ease up on the character assassinations and stop weaponising mob mentality.”

We are in the first rounds of weaponised social media. Disney’s swift and decisive firing of Gunn set a precedent. There will be more instances. Tweet bombs hurled will increase in ferocity. Other moguls and actors will fall, some as unfortunate casualties and others deservingly.

Do some individuals deserve to have their names soiled as repentance for their past transgressions? Absolutely. Should they lose their jobs and have their names scrubbed from history? Some of them, yes. Can people change? Absolutely. So where is the line?

People like Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein may not be redeemed and maybe shouldn't be if the allegations against them are true, but that doesn’t mean that every individual that goes through a trial by Twitter automatically deserves the same.

So who's the real James Gunn? The things he tweeted ten years ago are abhorrent. But do they define him now, nearly a decade later?

Maybe. Maybe not. 

Where is the line between punishment and redemption? Should a person be demonised for something they said years ago? How harsh is too harsh? What is and isn't irredeemable?

On its own, raw unchecked rage and knee-jerk reactions can burn down careers, but paired with consideration and conversation, it can build bridges.

So let’s talk about it.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!