The internet is a place where everyone meets everyone else. It is the site of a billion different micro- and macro-cultures; it is a space where you can find out anything you want, provided humans have come up with it; it is a weirdly temporary repository of our species’s history, which will end when the server lights finally wink off.
In historical terms, it’s also very new. The World Wide Web debuted to the general public in August 1991, only 29 short years ago. And because it was a new technology, a kind of public square that felt novel and transformative, things felt lawless, and people began to behave lawlessly, as though the web was a place beyond pro-social norms. Today, that has changed somewhat, if only because now it’s easy for the majority of people to get online: in 2018, 69.6 percent of Americans had a smartphone, which is the way most people access the internet.
The other reason for the change was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s crusade for a real-name internet because real people are easier to sell to advertisers and because anonymity breeds toxicity. (Less discussed, of course, is pseudonymity: you can get the same social benefits just by having a persistent identity online. But that isn’t quite as lucrative.) Even so, vestiges of the old internecine spats and flame wars spring up now and again, generally with the unlikeliest people and brands centered in the crosshairs.
The latest victim was Yorkshire Tea, a black tea blend 14 years older than the net and the current bestselling black tea in the United Kingdom. Last week, Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson’s chancellor, posted a picture on Twitter of himself with a very large bag of Yorkshire Tea bags.
Quick Budget prep break making tea for the team. Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew. pic.twitter.com/zhoQM9Ksho— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) February 21, 2020
That tweet kicked off a shitstorm of anger at Yorkshire Tea, which hadn’t staged the photo or been involved in any financial way. “Nothing to do with us - people of all political stripes like our brew,” the company wrote in a since-deleted tweet later that day. “Plus there’s no way we’d intentionally stick ourselves in a Twitter storm on a Friday afternoon. It’s nearly hometime!” The angry tweets continued through the weekend, which compelled the brand to tweet an unusually frank call for civility and kindness.
We've spent the last three days answering furious accusations and boycott calls. For some, our tea just being drunk by someone they don't like means it's forever tainted, and they've made sure we know it.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
It's been pretty shocking to see the determination some have had to drag us into a political mudfight. But it's been lovely to see others speak up for us - we're so grateful to everyone who's done that in a civil way (and gutted to see some use it as a reason for more nastiness).— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
Speaking directly now, as the person who's been answering these tweets, I know it could have been much worse. It's easier to be on the receiving end of this as a brand than as an individual. There's more emotional distance and I've had a team to support me when it got a bit much.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
But for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company - please remember there's a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
It’s a very nice sentiment from a tea brand: don’t forget that there are people behind the usernames, and those people have feelings, too. Even faceless accounts are run by humans who look and think and have the capacity to feel, just as you do.
The problem, however, is that it doesn’t matter. Everybody knows that there’s a human on the receiving end of an angry post; that’s why the posts are sent in the first place. They are meant to hurt. But beyond hurt, their point is to shame — because shame can seem like an effective way to change someone else’s behavior. And historically, shaming has been used as a visible way to enforce a community’s standards.
As the historian of emotions Peter N. Stearns writes in his book Shame: A Brief History: “An impressive variety of regions, from ancient Egypt onward, displayed people who had misbehaved—from mischievous students who had not done their lessons to adults accused of adultery—in some form of public stocks, where for a few hours, even a few days, the general public could walk past and express their disgust.” (Remind you of anything?) Even so, he writes, because of shame’s power, some people either figured out ways to be welcomed back into their communities or to avoid it in the first place.
The problem with public shaming on Twitter — the kind that Yorkshire Tea experienced — is that Twitter isn’t a community at all. It is a mishmash of random groups that form and deform unpredictably and encompass everyone from Juggalos to JNCO enthusiasts. Its context- and community-free nature means that Twitter shaming isn’t usually productive; it makes most targets dig in their heels.
So let’s back up for a second. The reason this seemingly innocuous post from Sunak was controversial in the first place is because the chancellor / MP for Yorks is a Tory and a Brexiteer. As a person appointed by Johnson, the current prime minister, Sunak is expected to help cudgel the UK and the rest of Europe into supporting the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. As an American, it’s been interesting to watch what’s been happening across the proverbial pond: seeing a culture war from a distance has a way of making the issues and deceptions appear relatively easy to parse.
Obviously, that isn’t the case. It’s rare that a culture war is about the material considerations that birth it because they’re mostly about feelings. The Brexit vote was less about funding for the National Health Service and more about nostalgia for an empire the sun never sets on. (The same dynamic is currently playing out in the US Democratic primary for its presidential candidate, and it will play out again as soon as a nominee is decided and we start in on election season in earnest. To put it lightly, Trump and his party are, more than anything, nostalgic.)
The online hostility toward Yorkshire Tea, then, can be read as a way for people who are angry about Brexit to vent or express an unfavorable opinion toward the powerful. It’s also a symptom of a capitalist culture that conflates someone’s personality with the things they buy and consume — which itself has become a predictor in the never-ending culture wars. If you like [insert thing], you probably believe [insert belief], right? (It’s the same on Amazon.) And as societies become more politically polarized, the predictive power increases: you buy this brand because it represents this thing.
Because the internet operates as a feedback loop, those trends have started happening faster than ever. One example that feels particularly au courant is people involved in the alt-right / alt-light using the “OK” hand gesture to winkingly gesture toward white supremacy — because posters on 4chan decided it would be an excellent way to troll the libs. That meant, eventually, it became both of those things at once.
Naturally, this brings us back to tea. Tea isn’t hard to find, not anymore. But it is the original symbol of globalization. More than one war has been fought over those precious leaves, and its trade has opened borders. The Boston Tea Party wouldn’t have happened without the Tea Act in 1773, which was meant to stop tea from being smuggled into America by granting the British East India Company the right to export tea from Britain duty-free to North America — which the colonists still had to pay tax on, according to the Townshend Acts. That conflict, of course, started the American Revolution.
Last weekend, Yorkshire Tea found itself at the center of a thoroughly modern phenomenon: its brand was inadvertently associated with politics that a large number of people dislike; a group of people formed on Twitter who might not normally band together but shared the same feelings about Brexit; angry posts were tweeted as a way to shame the brand into saying something in line with the group’s views; the conflict went viral; and here you are now.
Anyway, this morning, Chancellor Sunak posted another tweet about tea.
It would seem he learned a lesson, although I still think he’s missing the point (even if he’s not digging his heels in), which is: you can’t escape from politics because it is everything now. The deception was that it didn’t matter, that the policies that determine the shape of our lives were anything but incredibly important. In an age of wild and growing inequality, people are starting to realize the way we use power matters — and the internet happens to be the best place to see it.