Harvey Weinstein, Cass Sunstein, and Cascade Effects

Harvey Weinstein has sparked a cascade of allegations of powerful men committing sexual assault.

Oct 10, 2017

On October 5, 2017 the New York Times published a momentous piece of investigative journalism detailing dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, more women have come forward as victims of Weinstein’s crimes.

The #metoo hashtag has taken off on twitter as women, and men, have for the first time told the world that they have been attacked as well. More famous figures have been outed as sexual assailants, from Louis C.K. to Mark Halperin to Kevin Spacey.

In recent years, allegations of sexual assault have brought down Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby, and they cast a pall over then-candidate Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The accusations almost always come out in a similar pattern. First one or a couple women share their allegations. Then as coverage of the story intensifies, more and more victims begin to come out of the woodwork to add to the allegations. Sometimes it can start with the allegations of a handful and turn into dozens, as it was in the Weinstein and O’Reilly cases.

In political science, this phenomenon is called a cascade effect. Cascade effects occur when the courageous or counter-cultural actions of a few convince others who were too afraid to speak out previously to get involved. Sometimes, cascade effects result in massive changes in public policy, social norms, or even all-out revolutions.

The Arab Spring in 2011 is a perfect example of how far cascade effects can go. In fact, most modern political science textbooks refer to the Arab Spring when talking about cascade effects. Taking Egypt as an example, let’s say there were a couple hundred ardent activists in Egypt who wanted the president at the time, Hosni Mubarak, removed from office. These activists were young, in poor economic positions, well-educated, and tech-savvy. They used social media to make their presence known and took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the Egyptian government.

Then there was another group of several thousand Egyptians that came in after them, we’ll call them the “lukewarm activists”. The lukewarm activists were not as poor, but still young and tech-savvy. They had a little more to lose, and were less willing to put their lives on the line to protest an authoritarian government. However, after seeing hundreds of ardent activists in the streets, the lukewarm activists were emboldened and willingly joined the protest. What was once hundreds of activists was now thousands.

The next group was what I’ll call the “disgruntled”. They were less educated, older, and had a lot to lose. Disgruntled Egyptians were unhappy with the current regime, and preferred to see Hosni Mubarak removed. But these Egyptians had families to look after and were extremely hesitant to put themselves or their loved ones at risk. There were millions of disgruntled Egyptians, and they had been disgruntled for a long time.

What finally got them out to the streets in protest was the ardent and lukewarm activists. Disgruntled Egyptians saw thousands of people already in the streets and were confident they had safety in numbers. When the disgruntled Egyptians joined the movement, the protest in Tahrir Square swelled to about 2 million in size. The Egyptian government was faced with an existential crisis, and Mubarak stepped down and was later arrested.

The Arab Spring in Egypt did not have to go that way. Imagine instead that there were only a handful ardent activists who were willing to risk their lives even if they were the only ones protesting. Seeing only a handful of brazen anti-Mubarak supporters in the streets, the lukewarm protesters would not feel safe enough to come out, and neither would the disgruntled Egyptians. Instead of a cascade effect, the protest would stay small and not balloon in size. The couple dozen protesters in the street could be easily ignored, suppressed, or killed by the Egyptian government.

Cass Sunstein [one of my favorite authors] put out a new paper this August titled “Unleashed.” In his “very preliminary draft” of what I can only hope will soon be a whole new book, he spends a lot of time on cascade effects and the 2016 elections. He talks about many instances where people have opinions that they have sequestered (for better or worse) because society has considered them unacceptable. When a cascade of people commit to tearing down these social pressures, people break their silence and feel unleashed.

Sunstein mentions sexual harassment accusations and society’s prolonged silencing of sexual assault victims. He also discusses a wave of aggressive anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, anti-globalization, and anti-elite sentiment that arose in the 2016 election as being part of a cascade effect involving those who felt silenced by “political correctness.”

The opinions of those writing #metoo posts on social media and the opinions of those waving Nazi flags in Virginia are, to put it mildly, vastly different from one another. But cascade effects are revealing, on all sides, long held beliefs that were not previously being openly discussed. What is similar between all these cascade effects, Sunstein argues, is that they are incredibly difficult to predict in advance. The next time someone stands on a stage and claims to be leading a “silent majority,” don’t scoff at them. They might be right, and we don’t know how many people are willing to join the cascade.

I want to end by coming back to Harvey Weinstein and others that have been outed in recent months. These sexual predators will often accuse the victims coming forward of being “opportunistic” or waiting until the allegations would be good for “publicity.”

The concept of cascade effects really helps to show why this argument is pernicious, wrongheaded, and dangerous. Clearly, these heinous actors have preferred that women who are assaulted stay silent. Women who come forward face being ridiculed, fired, and blacklisted. Preferring safety in numbers is a fundamentally human emotion. Claiming victims are being opportunistic by coming forward in the middle of a cascade instead of before one denies them the right to want to maintain their dignity and safety in a society that is still far too punitive to women who want justice. The only purpose of the argument is to try to stop the cascade from happening in the first place, which only proves that they know there are more victims out there on the precipice of joining the movement.