🤯 The Accidental McCarthyists of Tech Twitter

How Tech Twitter convinced itself Sahil Lavingia has been anonymously trolling VCs and what Barbara Streisand has to do with it.

Yo! ✌️ I’m Brett! I am a founder and former Cognitive Science researcher. Social Studies is a semi-weekly newsletter for people building great products for humans. It includes recaps of what happened on Tech Twitter every week plus deep analysis using frameworks from Psychology, Economics, and the other Social Sciences.

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✨ TLDR

💥 Sahil looked suspect - Tech Twitter was convinced that Sahil Lavingia was the person behind the loathed anonymous account, VC Brags. He denied it but many still believe.

🌟 It’s Barbara Streisand’s fault this blew up - The act of trying to repress something actually draws attention to it. It happened to Barbara and it also happened to Sahil

⛔️ John Locke would say everyone has confirmation bias - It’s impossible for Sahil to prove he isn’t behind the VC Brags account so people will believe what they want to.

🥵 Anonymous identities will bite us in the ass - This is modern McCarthyism. When the identity of a despised individual or group cannot be proven, it can be used to destroy anyone. Sahil’s situation could have been much much worse.

🎬 A quiet, necessary ending - In the early hours the day after the controversy with Sahil, VC Brags shut down its account. Was this the end of an abusive, cowardly campaign or was this yet another cancel culture casualty? Yes.


💥 Sahil looked suspect

On Sunday, VCBrags, a meme account that is absolutely loathed by investors but adored by everyone else shared a tweet that looked like Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad, should have tweeted it.

Like a tweet that was meant to be sent from Sahil’s account, but was accidentally tweeted from the VC Brags account.

It was quickly deleted after it was shared.

It was clearly suspect, so a lot of people thought that Sahil must be the person behind the VC brags account.

He denied it.

A lot.

And that was the part of the problem.

🌟 It’s Barbara Streisand’s fault this blew up

In 2003, Barbara Streisand sued her photographer for violating her privacy because she saw that one of the photos he took was downloaded 6 times but that Streisand had only downloaded it twice. She thought he was sharing the photo around.

Unfortunately, because of the lawsuit’s publicity, the photo was viewed by over 420k people, defeating the entire purpose of the suit.

In 2005, TechDirt coined the Streisand effect in reference to a similar event where a resort issuing a takedown notice to urinal.net over use of the resort's name.

How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don't like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let's call it the Streisand Effect.

This is the Streisand effect.

The act of trying to repress something actually draws attention to it

Because VC Brags deleted the tweet, it made it suspicious. And because Sahil vehemently denied being associated with VC Brags again and again, he inadvertently called more attention to the idea.

⛔️ John Locke would say everyone has confirmation bias

In the 17th century, philosopher John Locke coined the term Argument from Ignorance. It says

Something is true if hasn’t been proven false

This is totally wrong. It’s a logical fallacy in part because it doesn’t allow for scenarios in which the truth is unknowable, which is actually the case here.

No one can verify that they are not behind VC Brags without destroying VC Brags anonymity, which would defeat the entire purpose of VC Brags. As a result, no one can actually know for certain if Sahil is behind the account or not.

So what do people believe?

It’s moments like this where our unconscious biases come to the forefront.

There’s quite a bit of confirmation bias flavoring this fiasco. Sahil has been known to be somewhat at ideological odds with VCs for some time. As a result, it makes a ton of sense that he would be behind VC Brags, an account that makes fun of VCs all day.

On the other hand, if you like Sahil, your confirmation bias will find reasons for you to believe that he in fact isn’t behind VC Brags.

🥵 Anonymous identities will bite us in the ass

Many have been feeling increasingly like they aren’t able to speak their minds on public forums without putting their reputations in serious jeopardy. Anonymous identities have emerged as a solution.

Got a controversial thing to say? Share it through a pseudonym so your actual identity is protected.

All good right?

Nope.

While what happened to Sahil was fairly light hearted and civilized, it’s emblematic of a critical flaw with pseudonyms as a solution to cancel culture:

When the identity of a despised individual or group cannot be proven, it can be used to destroy anyone.

Let’s take an extreme case. Imagine an anonymous account on Tech Twitter that is known for extreme racism and antisemitism. If we play out Sahil’s scenario now, his career would be over. His reputation would be destroyed. His physical safety would be at risk. All despite the fact that we would still not be able to definitively prove he was or wasn’t behind the account.

This is McCarthyism in 2020.

No one can prove they’re not a racist, an antisemite, an antifa member, or an anonymous Twitter account, so anyone can be convicted.

🎬 A quiet, necessary ending

In the early hours the day after the controversy with Sahil, the VC Brags account reset and shared this one final tweet.

Was this the end of an abusive, cowardly campaign or was this yet another cancel culture casualty?

Yes.

📚 Further reading


🙏 Thanks

Remember to be good to each other out there!

Shout out to Ani Pai and Colin Goltra for helping me think this through so quickly.