The hashtag #CNNBlackmail is some high-level internet, some third-degree online hoodoo. In order to understand it, you have to know, first, that an anonymous Reddit user named HanAssholeSolo made a video by superimposing the CNN logo on old Wrestlemania footage of Donald Trump tackling Vince McMahon. That’s called satire. Repurposing pop culture with comically amateur video editing is internet degree one. The second degree happened when the president retweeted the video to his 33.3 million Twitter followers,1 prompting the commentariat to disgorge a clutch of takes. It also prompted CNN to go looking for the real person behind the Reddit presence named, I reiterate, HanAssholeSolo.
They found him. They elected to preserve his anonymity, though, after he issued a written apology2 and promised not to make any more trouble. Judging by this passage in their own report, CNN reserved the right to out him if he messes with them again:
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
Emphasis added, naturally. The third degree of internet set in when Trump supporters interpreted that last sentence as a threat and coined the hashtag #CNNBlackmail. Let no one call me a Trump supporter, but I kind of have to agree with them. What CNN did strongly resembles blackmail. Consideration after the jump.
There are two ways to interpret the outcome of this incident. The first is that the cable news network has forgiven the Redditor on the grounds that he never do it again. They could have exposed his identity and subjected him to internet justice, but they had mercy. Everybody gets one, and as long as this guy doesn’t make a video where, say, the Kool-Aid Man bursts through a wall labeled “CNN” at breakfast, he’s cool. Don’t mess with us again, though, or we’ll blow you up. This condition is generally considered a reasonable and even commendable response to being wronged.
But how wronged did CNN get, exactly? Contrary to certain shameless takemongers, the video of Trump punching the network’s logo did not read as an incitement to violence. If Solo had digitally replaced Vince McMahon’s face with Wolf Blitzer’s, this video would seem very different. But because the face getting beaten is just a red square that says CNN, we must view the beating as symbolic. It’s classic verfremdungseffekt. The production values are so clunky as to constitute camp, and the argument that this video calls on the viewer to commit literal violence therefore falls flat.
CNN has suffered a mild injury, here, at worst. The harm it threatens to do Solo is massive by comparison, and this discrepancy is what takes the network’s statement out of magnanimity and into the realm of extortion. The internet has already demonstrated its power to cost infamous people their jobs. Even if the material conditions of his life did not change, the abuse Solo would absorb were his real name made public would dramatically outstrip what CNN suffered. Millions of people taunt the news network every day. It feels nothing, but if even a fraction of the abuse heaped on the CNN brand were visited on a single person, that person would die. He would at least feel very sad, in a way that a corporate entity cannot.
So the problem here is asymmetry of power. A news organization should not threaten to make one person infamous in order to avenge its brand. The news, like the government, should not settle personal scores. It only took that one sentence to push the network’s decision out of decency and into blackmail, and it’s a shame they included it. The online right will cherish #CNNBlackmail, as they cherish any evidence they have been unjustly maligned. HanAssholeSolo will watch what he says about corporate media. The whole, awful argument that the news is fake will seem incrementally more appealing to people who weren’t following the news anyway, and everyone will get a little bit dumber. Then it will be tomorrow.