Who would’ve guessed that users of social media and the internet, the home of free and unlimited porn and all varieties of widely accepted debauchery, would regularly behave like a clique of second-graders, snickering at “wee-wees” and “pee-pees?” It doesn’t matter whether it’s a slow news week or a busy one, if someone gets entangled in an online sexual affair, and it goes public on Twitter or via click-bait news outlets, the internet always reacts in a way that’s both prudish and prurient, declaring jihad on private lives — sometimes honest human mistakes — and operating as a tsunami of mass voyeuristic derision.
This week, the internet claimed John Schindler.
If you don’t immediately recognize the name, don’t feel bad. He’s not a member of Congress, nor is he a popular reality show celebrity. Yet based upon the coverage of what happened to Schindler in the midst of an alleged online affair, you’d think he was. Who is he? Well, he’s mainly a college professor. In addition to his gig as a professor at the Naval War College, Schindler is also a former NSA analyst. Yeah, yeah, I know. Why was this guy a newsworthy subject for articles by the AP, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, ABC News and Gawker? Again, he’s not running for mayor of New York City or as a “family values” presidential candidate, so it beats the hell out of me why this “scandal” was anything more than an ugly but personal fiasco.
Before we continue, full disclosure: I consider Schindler an “e-friend.” You might’ve read a few of my NSA articles in which I’ve cited his work, and we routinely talk and debate on Twitter. But my frustration with the developments this week are only slightly related to our e-friendship. Any reasonable human being ought to conclude that the attention his story has received was, in the final analysis, horrendous. Therefore, the point of this article isn’t Schindler’s story, necessarily, but the reporting and digital pile-on that ensued in its wake.
Monday morning, political Twitter exploded with revelations that a troll had leaked dubious evidence in the form of screen-captures of a text-message exchange and of an email apparently written by Schindler, both of which seeming to suggest that Schindler had been carrying on an internet extramarital affair with a female Twitter user named “Lesley,” whose handle is @currahee88.
The email illustrated a heated courtship as well as personal “disclosures,” including a confession that may or may not be true: that Schindler is more conservative and more religious than his tweets let on. It could be true, or it could be what we guys often do when we’re courting — shaping our image to the tastes of the person whom we’re trying to impress. Either way, it’s ultimately irrelevant because our online personas don’t always match our private selves. Schindler (if the author was in fact Schindler) continued by discussing his relationship with his wife in a manner that I imagine is fairly textbook for guys who are stepping out, virtually or otherwise.
The text message exchange, however, (which I refuse to post here) included a smartphone photo of a penis. It’s the sort of thing that even in 2014 invariably ignites an all-digital all-Puritanical revival of The Scarlet Letter. Gads! A human penis! [Faints.] Every time it happens, hundreds if not thousands of ordained scolds emerge and sanctimoniously pass judgment with kneejerk piety upon the sender of the photo.
Supercharging this particular episode was the totally unsubstantiated rumor that the photo was sent to Lesley unsolicited. In other words, the completely false and in some cases libelous accusation that Schindler had acted in an harassing way was frivolously hurled around Twitter, as well as in articles and comment-sections, in a way that almost appeared coordinated. Many of the familiar Twitter disciples of Glenn Greenwald shared in the rumormongering. (To his credit, Greenwald condemned the online exploitation of Schindler’s private life, tweeting, “John Schindler did nothing that should trigger any public judgments.”)
Then, after the social media smear-machine propelled its way through 24 hours of finger-wagging and evidence-free sexual harassment charges, the truth emerged that the affair was consensual and that the selfie was indeed solicited by her. Lesley’s mea culpa was published as a series of confessional style tweets Tuesday afternoon that entirely exculpated Schindler from the harassment accusations. In addition to apologizing to Schindler and his wife, she explained that she was merely trying to expose Schindler to his spouse via, oddly, a self-described “Twitter troll” named Trent Jensen, aka @T3H_ARCH3R, who has since deleted his Twitter account. It was Jenson who posted the texts and email online for the world to see. It was Lesley, along with Jenson, who turned what should’ve been a tumultuous but private family matter into a worldwide spectacle.
And for the life of me, I still can’t figure out why.
One possible yet flimsy excuse kept popping up in various articles and threads: that Schindler is a big meany on Twitter. First of all, have any of these people been on Twitter before? It’s a courtesy-free zone, where free-range trolls, sock-puppets and anonymous weirdos, many of whom suffer from severe personality disorders, latch onto real-life human beings and rarely let go until they’re blocked and reported. In Schindler’s case, he’s been hit by numerous impersonators who, in addition to forming a legion of parody accounts, have attempted to report him to his superiors at the Naval War College. With this week’s events, by the way, they may have finally succeeded in depriving him of his livelihood. Indeed Schindler’s been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. If Lesley is to be believed, it wasn’t her but one of Schindler’s trolls who reported the affair to the Naval War College.
Regarding the trolls, and the reality that many of those trolls are supporters of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, it’s ironic that the same people who claim to cherish privacy above all else were utterly giddy at the idea of an educator’s private, personal correspondence being exposed online before the gawking masses.
That brings us back around to the big question: why? As near as I can tell it’s merely because Schindler is an “NSA defender” who refused to suffer fools gladly. That’s pretty much it. And those who spread the falsehoods and wallowed in schadenfreude should be ashamed of themselves. Whatever mistakes Schindler has made in his marriage, he’s surely paying for them. But that’s his private business. That’s his private hell. It’s not my place to pass judgment, and it’s definitely not the place of those who spent the better part of this week marketing in self-righteous castigation.
Presuming all of this turns out to be true, Schindler isn’t the first person I’ve personally known who’s been burned by an online relationship. I’ve known victims and I’ve known predators. With each one, and in spite of being strong, intelligent people, the common denominator is always poor judgment, but it’s poor judgment that’s generally symptomatic of sexual attraction or even love, awkwardly sent and received via a relatively new and uncharted format. The internet is a format that both facilitates a greater potential for and frequency of mutual attraction while confounding perceptions that are usually present during traditional face-to-face dating (eye-contact is impossible via text). In that regard, it’s long past time that the internet, of all places, stops shaming people who are caught up in these scenarios. Likewise, it’s not a bad idea to proceed with a greater level of caution, too, whether in online relationships or, for that matter, in platonic friendships, especially knowing that people like Trent Jenson are out there perched like snipers, living for the sinister opportunity to dump your most intimate details into the baking glare of the most colossal spotlight in human history.
This isn’t a rare or unpredictable occurrence, therefore it shouldn’t be shocking that it happens anymore. Not today. Simply put: enough already. Schindler’s private life should never have been publicly exposed then debated and published by the Associated Press and the others, any more so than the details of a random offline affair ought to have been.
UPDATE: Schindler posted a mea culpa on his blog.