There was a distinct moment during the tribulations of David Petraeus when his ordeal by gossip began to feel like a universal threat, one aimed equally at our own privacy. It wasn’t simply the spectacle of the world’s most powerful warrior—unbowed in the face of IEDs, al Qaeda, political vagaries, or foreign intelligence agencies—suddenly brought low by a few stray emails on the domestic front. The scale of the ensuing media storm evoked the elemental forces of ancient Greek drama and made him an Everyman. His punishment soon felt utterly disproportionate and arbitrary. The most saintly of us have secrets. We have all sent emails we regret. Teenagers put up dodgy social media posts every day that will haunt them in adulthood. We can all be publicly humiliated. Petraeus sat atop the greatest machinery of secrecy. If his indignities can be so easily exposed so pitilessly, who is safe?
It’s no good arguing that the famous or powerful have signed on to such risks, that they are crucially different from us. With the advent of the Internet, anybody can shame anybody, and the stain can endure through generations across continents. Nor is there real comfort in the notion that digital media promotes the exposure of genuinely egregious offenders such as the Jerry Sanduskys and Jimmy Saviles. A precisely appropriate forum exists for such cases: the criminal justice system. And there are reasons why it has checks and balances—to protect the innocent while calibrating punishment for degrees of guilt. Today’s scandals do no such thing. Instead, they unleash ancient mythological furies with the power of modern technology.
Suddenly, we are back in the archaic time of fear, where anyone who rises too high can get arbitrarily destroyed by the Gods, where there’s no distinction between guilty and innocent, merely between the lucky and unlucky. In the current pedophilia scandal gripping the U.K., retired Tory party treasurer Lord McAlpine had his reputation quickly destroyed by allegations of child abuse that got retracted only after a Twitter tsunami took hold. “I was living in the South of Italy gardening, and I find suddenly the whole world has collapsed on me,” McAlpine said. He is looking to sue 10,000 Twitter users for defamation. Either way, he is one of the unlucky.
The truth is we have created a police state in which we are both the persecutors and the victims. The most modern of technologies has ushered in the end of the modern era by destroying privacy and returning us to a primitive age of odium. Urban mobility and immigrant aspirations depended on a high degree of anonymity that allowed people to restart and self-invent, to leave behind the burdens of class, sect, and inherited identity. Now, even family sins are back in vogue. The media routinely hounds relatives of scandal subjects. This is what police states do. With the Internet, future generations will curse their family luck.
Open societies are slowly committing suicide by digitally amplified rumor and innuendo. You do not see totalitarian leaders destroyed by prurience. But it won’t be long before they meddle in our politics with threats of scandal. Twitter users don’t, on the whole, care about checking sources. With our survival at stake, it’s time to impose some road rules for modern privacy if only by countering shame with decency. We should all begin by purging ourselves of the “guilty pleasure” of gossip as entertainment that, in truth, is neither victimless nor private. Anyone publicly exposing or trading in confidential emails—or rumor through social media—should be identified and openly vilified, and that includes law enforcement agencies. Once a scandal erupts, its origins quickly get forgotten. No one seems bothered by how or why the FBI probe into Petraeus’s emails became public—who leaked their content and by what authority. He was in charge of defending our freedoms against enemies. When Taliban leaders heard of his downfall they laughed out loud.