So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

Shamed cvr

This is a book about people who have transgressed, or been thought to transgress, acceptable bounds of decent behaviour, and who have then been punished disproportionately in the court of public opinion, and often subsequently in the real world by their employers.  The internet’s echo chamber has made the public shaming process easy, and many of his case studies are about people being thoughtlessly crass on social media who are then descended upon by a virtual lynch-mob.  One of these was Justine Sacco, who in December 2013 infamously tweeted on her trip to South Africa: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’  She had fewer than 200 Twitter followers but by the time her plane landed, thanks to the power of the retweet and people with a larger following, she was an international pariah.  The incident was ironic because of the fact that she worked in PR.  Then there was Lindsey Stone who, with a friend, was leading a group of adults with learning difficulties on a trip to Washington, DC.  Their tour took them to Arlington National Cemetery where the pair did a ‘funny’ photograph of Stone pretending to shout and making a rude gesture in front of a sign saying ‘Silence and Respect’.  Her reward was much the same as Sacco’s.  In both cases their lives went rapidly downhill, including the predictable death and rape threats that targeted women generally face, and they lost their jobs.

More complex was the case of Adria Richards, who thought she would blithely shame online two people who made a joke – between themselves – about dongles at an IT conference, leading one to lose his job.  Unlike Sacco and Stone, her victims had not made a public pronouncement with which someone had disagreed and overreacted, rather she took it upon herself to expose a private conversation by means of a tweet with a photograph of the ‘jokers’ attached, and then a blog post.  Perhaps she thought ‘dongles, hell, I’ve had it up to here with IT penis jokes’; whatever her motive, for her sanctimonious pains she suffered a severe social media backlash which led to her losing her own job when hackers attacked her company’s computer network.

She comes across as one of the oddest characters in the book, with a skewed vision of the world:  ‘Have you ever heard that thing, “men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?”’’ she asks Ronson, quoting Margaret Atwood.  Ronson thinks this is ridiculous and when he points out that she was in the middle of a conference with 800 other people, she responds by saying that they would probably be male and white (and therefore untrustworthy presumably).  It may explain why she felt threatened by a private off-colour joke which she only knew about because she had sharp hearing, though not why she would put herself in what she must have deemed to be potentially harm’s way by going to the conference in the first place, where she would be sitting among 800 white males.  It reminded me of the old slur ‘all men are potential rapists’, but perhaps her sense of proportion had been clouded by the terrible treatment she had experienced after posting the photograph, the fallout from which she could not have predicted at the time.

Ronson also looks at people who managed to come through a shaming process without having their lives demolished.  Notable among these is Max Mosley, the Formula 1 boss who was accused by the News of the World of attending a Nazi-themed S&M party.  Instead of caving in and going into hiding he launched a counter-attack, successfully suing for breach of privacy and making the rather fine distinction that the uniforms were only German, not specifically Nazi.  Any attempts at social media shaming failed to gain traction, while Mosley’s robust approach showed that he was not going to play the role of victim.  He had nothing to be ashamed of, and he let the world (mainly through the courts) know it.  There was more amusement than outrage among the public, and a view that it was essentially nobody’s business but his and the other participants’ what they got up to in private, whatever the uniforms looked like.

As to proportionality, Sacco’s AIDS tweet was ill-advised, but while at Heathrow changing planes for Cape Town she tweeted: ‘Cucumber sandwiches – bad teeth. Back in London!’  Personally I find that offensive but I wouldn’t dream of issuing a death threat over it (neither did anyone else), though I might be tempted to issue a reprimand about crude national stereotypes.  In the event I would probably think ‘what a smug plonker’ and dismiss her from further thought.  AIDS in Africa was thought to be on an entirely different level, even though it involved the same stereotyping as her asinine comment about the quality of Londoners’ dentistry.  Sacco tried to make out that her AIDS tweet was a jokingly satirical reference to white privilege.  I’m not convinced it was that thought through, and looked at dispassionately it expressed a racist sentiment.  But the venom it unleashed shames the perpetrators, or should if only they would come down from the moral high ground, more than her foolish tweet shamed Sacco.  It is a paradox that the trollish virtue-signalling is so often uglier than the perceived offence, and where the target is a woman invariably misogynistic.

Thus while this is a book about ghastly people, the vast majority are on the other end of a keyboard, taking advantage of the anonymity the internet affords them.  The majority of Ronson’s subjects are ordinary people who wrote something carelessly and suffered for it, not merely in terms of derision but frequently in losing their livelihood.  Redemption can be hard as well.  The Twittersphere is not very enthusiastic about second acts in the lives of those considered to have sinned, and even those who show remorse can still be fair game.  A suspicion arises in the observer that the only thing which will satisfy some of these trolls is for their quarry to commit suicide.  The arrogance (and often ignorance, though Ronson talks about ‘wilful misunderstanding’ on the part of the mob, which is certainly part of it) is hard to stomach.

Ronson’s examples are only one manifestation of the horribleness that the internet throws up daily.  Look at the comments under a YouTube video dealing with politics or religion to see the amount of bile that can quickly generate when commenters are afforded the comfort of anonymity.  Even a fairly innocuous video can generate blood vessel-bursting levels of hostility.  Shaming is different though, and Ronson identifies a symbolic aspect in targeting a named individual who is perceived to have overstepped the boundary of acceptability.  Sacco was perceived to be white, rich (her father was routinely described as a billionaire rather than the carpet salesman he was), arrogant, and out of touch with the difficulties of everyday life for people who do not lead privileged lives.  Such individuals are scapegoats for the frustrations experienced by others who feel excluded, hence the out-of-scale level of the anger.  It’s a plausible analysis, though perhaps secondary to the number of sociopaths, the easily led, and the poorly educated there are on social media.

It’s hard to know what to do if this type of internet shit-storm happens to someone.  Lying low and hoping it will go away is about the best strategy.  An awkward chapter follows Lindsay Stone as a company which claims to be able to push negative internet results down the rankings struggles to find interesting things about her which can be used to promote positive articles on Google’s first page (the only one most people look at).  Ronson persuaded them to undertake the assignment free for her, which was just as well; the effort may have worked temporarily, but at this writing the first Google result for ‘Lindsey Stone’ is a Guardian article, ‘Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone’, by one Jon Ronson.  All the fluff the spin doctors put online is nowhere to be seen.

The likelihood that something of that nature would happen after appearing in Ronson’s sure-to-be-bestselling book makes one wonder about the motives of his interviewees because they must have known that appearing in it would rake the problem up all over again.  Perhaps at some level they had got used to the notoriety and wanted the attention back – or perhaps they were exhibiting the same lack of judgement that got them into trouble in the first place.  All I know is that if Jon Ronson ever approached me for an interview I’d run fast in the opposite direction.  To his credit he does document his own moment of public shaming when a sentence in an advance proof which he later removed because it was ambiguous and which should not have been quoted was of course quoted, leading to him experiencing in a small way what some of his interviewees had had to put up with.  The difference though was that it was all grist to his journalistic mill.  The account does lead to the most chilling sentence in the entire book; among the Twitter reprimands someone wrote: ‘You should never have thought it.’  1984 indeed.

Even without such unreliable manipulations by companies claiming to be able to spring-clean a person’s internet presence, Ronson’s follow-ups often found that his subjects had found new jobs, regained a positive outlook on life, and tried as best they could to put the trauma behind them, even though the taint often lingered.  One could argue that what happened to the subjects in Ronson’s book could have been worse.  Despite the death threats, nobody was murdered for an inappropriate tweet.  The same cannot be said in the Middle East where religiously-motivated bigots trawl social media for evidence of atheism or forbidden sexuality, then at best force the victim, even if only a teenager, to delete the account by circulating anything considered incriminating, or at worst send a report to the authorities.  This happens in countries where the penalty for such behaviour can range up to execution.  Faced with such a possibility, harsh words uttered online, even if wildly out of scale to the original comment, seem small beer in comparison.

This is a rather rambling book, and some of Ronson’s threads peter out.  He takes a look at the American porn industry to see what shame elements might be present among the participants but gets no insights into the shaming process as exhibited in social media.  He surveys psychological dynamics that might be relevant, Gustave Le Bon’s madness of crowds and particularly Philip Zimbardo’s classic Stanford prison experiment, which has been subjected to severe criticism in recent years and which he goes into in unnecessary depth, but such digressions do not contribute to an understanding of how social shaming works.  Nor particularly does an otherwise interesting section in which he talks to a 4chan activist and finds, to no-one’s surprise, that the typical supporter is generally male, young and disaffected, finding empowerment in a world where he is otherwise disempowered.  Ronson does not link the interviewee’s point that social shaming victims are targeted where they are most vulnerable – so men are threatened with loss of employment, seen as emasculating, while women are threatened with rape – to the Atwood quote as told to him by Adria Richards.  There is sometimes a feeling that Ronson has not got to the bottom of an issue in the effort to be entertaining.  Jonah Lehrer was shamed for making up Bob Dylan quotes, and Ronson gives him a sympathetic ride, at length, but later analyses of Lehrer’s work have found rather more wrong than a few fabricated Dylan soundbites.  The problem with Ronson’s style is that he is essentially a magazine writer and he produces copy to that format, engaging but not necessarily deep.

What I found disturbing about the book as much as the shaming was what seemed to be a lack of employment rights in the US.  People were fired for foolish social media behaviour on the grounds of what amounted to gross misconduct, yet without any formal warning process, simply because of the association, or the collateral damage from the association, between employer and employee.  Companies cared more about any implications for them than they did the merits of an employee’s defence.  I suspect that far more people are damaged by such job insecurity than are by public shaming.

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