Every week, someone on Twitter gets to be the person everyone else piles on, the person who is universally hunted by the social media warriors in the cheap seats. In May 2019, it was award-winning US author Natasha Tynes’ turn to face cancel culture.
Soon to publish her first novel, murder mystery They Called Me Wyatt, Natasha was traveling by train to her Washington communications job. When she saw a transit employee eating on the train—which is illegal in Washington—she snapped a photo and posted a tweet calling out the woman.
In the 49 minutes the tweet was up, former journalist Natasha’s life imploded. 49 minutes, for a decorated career and hopeful future to be torn down.
What happened next was described to me by Natasha from the Washington DC home she shares with her husband and three children for #Perspectives podcast The Tweet I Wish I Could Take Back.
I was absolutely intrigued to talk to Natasha. These types of stories fascinate me and to be able to be speak with someone who has experienced cancel culture and to unpack it is one of the most important conversations in this day and age.
During the hour or so we spoke on Zoom, we got to unpack what happens in a world where somebody can get judged and found wanting for 20 seconds of poor judgement—the length of time Natasha estimates it took her to write and post her tweet—and pretty much lose life as they know it.
Natasha recounts what happened on that day 14 months ago. The uniformed railway employee eating on the train caught her eye because “I’ve been lambasted before by Metro employees for eating a banana on the platform," she says.
"So I was really baffled this was happening in plain sight.”
When the employee told Natasha to “worry about yourself" she decided to tweet about the incident. She admits, “to be completely honest I should not have done this. I should have used a more private way of filing my complaint. If I could take this back I would.”
She agrees with me it wasn't the smartest tweet. “I admit I made an error in judgement but I’m human," says Natasha. "We all make mistakes. I should have used a more private manner of complaining.”
Asked what she was thinking at the time, Natasha—who has a masters’ degree in journalism and worked in the field for almost 20 years—“felt like she was exposing the hypocrisy of the DC Metro.”
She had tweeted about them before and “I was approaching it from a journalist explaining what is happening … I kind of got lost in the moment. The journalist instinct clouded my judgement.”
All around the world every day people are bringing to public attention whatever is going on in the circumstances of their lives. Sometimes they’re going to show poor judgement. Before social media we used to show poor judgement with a friend, saying things that saw them flash a raised eyebrow and a 'really?' look.
I don’t think we’ve made the adjustment at all to realise we’re speaking to an audience and not a person, and that’s substantially shifted how this narrative takes place.
Social media means we’re basically tweeting onstage and I don’t think most people are thinking about it. Natasha's story reminded me of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. It felt like an absolute witch hunt.
I get that tweet was dumb. It showed poor judgement. But so does Natasha, who would take it back if she could, who has apologised. I'm trying to talk about this in a way that is fair to many narratives, but the bottom line is, whatever you think about that tweet, if your next thought is, 'She deserved it', you're wrong.
The point you decide you are judge, jury and executioner on a complete stranger we have not evolved at all. We’re never going to advance in terms of community and humanity if we are stuck in this game where one mistake leaves people’s lives cancelled.
This is what it was like for Natasha: she deleted the tweet when she started getting comments. Then her phone started beeping and “suddenly on social media I was bombarded by people from everywhere," she says.
"The shocking part for me was—I get the snitch part—but I was shocked they called me racist. I was like ‘where did this come from?’ I was not targeting the employee because she was African American. How did this turn into a racist situation?
"That was absolutely not my intention and the way it was interpreted blew my mind and it was so unfair and so wrong. I started getting death threats.”
I struggled to stay composed reading some of the abusive, violent, repulsive tweets aimed at Natasha, and she still gets them more than a year on. Adding to that pain was that her publisher Rare Bird dropped They Called Me Wyatt, which she had worked on for five years.
The statement that she said she "did something truly horrible" which Rare Bird found "unacceptable."
The statement, made without giving her the opportunity to explain herself, was "so hurtful," says Natasha, who was hospitalised for a panic attack the day of her tweet.
"As if they never knew me. I was accused of systemic racism. I was like, ‘Hey, can somebody explain what’s going on here? It just broke me.”
For me, it's the ultimate form of gaslighting to be told you're a bad person for one act that showed poor judgement, but it was probably easier for the publisher to pull the pin than ride it out. In the last few months, we've seen established artists including Chris Lilley and John Cleese have works cancelled and few people have stood by them.
I’m talking about proportionality. Natasha took down her dumb tweet, but the publishers then extended the narrative and kept the story going. If we’re not capable of the subtlety of this and the nuance of this, we’re lost. It’s going to become black and white absolutism … 'We’re coming for you.'
Natasha believes if the publisher hadn’t dumped the book the media wouldn’t have reported it, “but because of the cancellation the story was covered all over the world, BBC, Canada, Australia, shocking. Suddenly my face is everywhere.”
She was denounced as a “petty and spiteful” racist, and after losing the book deal had a breakdown ("mentally, I was suicidal") which saw her flee the US, leaving her husband and kids behind, to be with her extended family and friends in Jordan, where she was born.
Growing up in the Middle East she lived through two Gulf Wars, but “this was the most difficult thing I ever went through and it scarred me forever. I think about it every single day," she says.
”If I could take this back I would.”
The story does have an arc of redemption. Another publisher, Rebeller, published her book and she told her story to mainstream media around the world, including UK Elle. And she's returned to social media, saying she wanted her life back.
“The fact I’m back on social media shows I’m still the same person and I made a mistake but I’m going to continue being who I am. Yes, you crushed me but I’m still alive. By doing that you show them that you’re moving on and they should move on as well.
"I feel guilty, I feel ashamed, I have all these feelings but I want my life back. Social media was my job and it was a big part of who I am and who I was, and if I just disappear and die, that’s what the mob wants. And I didn’t want the mob to win.
" It’s basically to say cancel culture cannot win."
Talking to Natasha, I felt more than ever that the moral narrative has gone horribly off the tracks. Morality is not you are never allowed to offend anyone … you are allowed to make a mistake, you are allowed to atone and apologise and be a whole person and not be defined by our worst moment.
I’ve had worst moments than what your Natasha's tweet was. We should be defined by our character and by what we contribute to society, not by 20 seconds of ‘I wasn’t thinking’.
This podcast and blog is really me finally, after so long, speaking publicly about something I feel very passionate about. If we don’t have a pathway back, what hope do we have?
The question I care about is what kind of world do we want to live in? We can put people on the moon but still can’t pull off politeness and love.
Let’s all agree we’re here for empathy, that the world is a better place if we’re kind. Now the key is to act on that. That whole thing could have been defused early if Natasha was extended good intentions. Without that, I just don’t see the train turning at all. We seem to be really committed to cancel culture and piling on and tearing someone down.
Natasha echoes that: Now, “I want to use my social media influence for the positive. I don’t want to try to take someone down or complain. My motto: just be kind.”