FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was afraid of Martin Luther King—“the most dangerous Negro in America”—and it’s fairly well known that he had a small army of agents watching him 24/7, reading his mail, wiretapping his phones, and listening in on his conversations—just as it’s fairly well known that King cheated on his wife with some regularity. What’s far less known is that the FBI often used this information in decidedly diabolical ways. For instance, at one point, Hoover sent a threatening letter to King which said, in essence: we’ve got proof of your infidelities, we’ve got sex tapes, and, unless you commit suicide, we’re going to release them to the public in 34 days: “You are finished. . . . King you are done. . . . The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are—an evil and abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.” Kill yourself. Or we’ll kill your reputation. Of course King didn’t kill himself. Nor did he bow out of public life. But King was an exceptionally courageous dude. Made of tough stuff. I can’t help but wonder how many politicians, activists, and journalists have shied away from serious political issues after they received a letter like this.
Texting, email, digital photography, social media, and the proliferation of high-quality video equipment have radically transformed 21st-century communication. There’s a record of pretty much everything now. In practice, this means that there’s a great deal of dirt, or stuff that can be construed as dirt, on pretty much everyone under the age of 30, and many of those above it. What does that mean for the future of The Open Society? Do we want to live in a culture were public figures can be disgraced and taken down at a moment’s notice whenever they challenge the powers that be? If, like me, your answer to that question is NO, then we need to become far more critical of exposés. If something embarrassing becomes public, when they’ve got dirt in The Dirt Drawer on everybody, the first question to ask is “Who benefits?” not “Is this true?”
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)