“The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status.”
— Neil Postman in a speech to the German Informatics Society on 11 October 1990
Once and a while a book comes along to describe a phenomenon that has been occurring just under society’s general awareness. Then, once it’s been released, you read it and ask yourself, “How did I not notice this before?” Suddenly, you see the phenomenon everywhere and it’s impossible to ignore.
Jon Ronson has written a book like this with So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which describes the phenomenon of what Ronson refers to as online shaming, which is a nice way of saying Internet mob justice. You know when you feel outraged at someone on the Internet and you post a negative screed about them and you feel justified the whole time? That’s what he’s talking about. In the cases Ronson describes the accused, who are usually completely innocent, are not just shamed — they are dragged into the virtual public square for us to hurl verbal rocks at. He then shows how these words result in very real consequences.
While various media platforms have reported extensively on separate instances of online shaming, Ronson has neatly gathered the most famous online kerfluffles of the past few years into his book, which helps to highlight their similarities. More importantly, he has interviewed both the shamers and the shamed involved in each incident. The resulting narrative tells a vastly different story about the Internet and social media than most of us are probably ready to hear.
There’s the story of Dongle Gate, Justine Sacco, Lindsay Stone and many others. I will forego re-telling anything but the basics of their individual stories. Ronson’s book goes into great detail. Even while reading the descriptions again — how many times were they breathlessly reported in every media outlet? — I still get the urge to send out some righteously angry tweets. Most readers will probably know these stories but they generally follow the same pattern: people said dumb things, usually jokes easily taken out of context, were then pilloried on Twitter for it and in the ensuing frenzy lost their jobs and sometimes entire careers.
Journalists, bloggers and fellow twitterers who were focused on fomenting outrage to generate clicks portrayed each case as if it were an example of the end of Western civilization. Of course these people deserved our hatred, the writers intoned, they had transgressed our politically correct social code. But Ronson reveals a less scintillating truth: the people being shamed were usually making private jokes to a small amount of private friends. Justine Sacco had just a 170 Twitter followers. Lindsay Stone made her joke on her private Facebook page. These attempts at humor were purposefully taken out of context by online clickbait factories, mobs of internet users were whipped into a frenzy, and innocent people lost things very real to them: jobs, relationships and their reputation. Google any of the above names and you’ll see that on the Internet, your life is locked in amber.
You’d think all this flurry of righteous activity would result in something positive, but none of the Internet transgressors that Ronson discusses were ever actually shamed, for in the end they had done nothing wrong. The most they could admit to Ronson was regret for making a joke in poor taste, which was then taken entirely out of context. Why then were they persecuted? The reasons might originate back at the Stanford prison experiments that Ronson spends part of a chapter on.
For readers who aren’t familiar, the Stanford “prison” experiments were the work of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who demonstrated that when given free reign, people will recreate oppressive environments. However, Zimbardo’s experiment only “worked” in that Stanford basement in 1971 because he specifically told the “guards” what role to play; he told them how to behave. Similarly, almost all online shaming episodes are precipitated by a voice of authority that we assume has vetted the facts; in most of these cases these are journalists with thousands of Twitter followers who are effectively telling their audiences to be outraged. And we, as supposedly enlightened Internet users, march along to the drum beat of scorn, each step generating thousands of page views.
The two quintessential online shamings, among the several that Ronson discusses, are Justine Sacco and “Dongle Gate”, which involved a woman named Adria Richards. In the case of Justine Sacco, Gawker writer Sam Biddle told his approximately 15,000 Twitter followers that she was a vile racist when in fact she was a kind, normal lady who loved her job and family, and had a sarcastic sense of humor. She had made a poorly-timed joke about AIDS in South Africa that any late night talk show host or comedian would have been excused for making, but Biddle portrayed it to his followers as a factual statement that she was making. His followers took the bait, the Internet sprung into action, and Sacco was fired by her company within hours.
Adria Richards was a marketer attending a tech conference and her tweets complaining about two male computer programmers making jokes were picked up by online media outlets who portrayed the men as sexual predators, when they were anything but. Richards had even made similar sexual jokes of her own on Twitter just days before. One of the programmers was quickly fired, despite his having apologized profusely. After Ronson interviews him it becomes obvious he’s a quiet, respectful guy who was interested in doing the right thing. He also had a family to support and they suffered greatly while he was jobless.
So what should we take away from all this? Those interested in revenge will be glad to know that both Biddle and Richards received comeuppance. Biddle was reassigned at Gawker after making insensitive tweets of his own and Richards was fired from her marketing job after the company became the target of retaliatory denial of service attacks. But are Biddle and Richards really to blame? In one way yes, because neither of them would accept responsibility even when pressed by Ronson. But in another way, the Internet is so filled with noise that the only messages that can get through are disasters, outrage and scandal.
Biddle and Richards were the conduit by which all their followers could be outraged, because by believing what these two people had to say there was no reason to not be outraged. Biddle told his followers that Sacco was evil, and so she was. Richards told her followers that the two men were women haters, and so they were. These are the functions and outcome of propaganda techniques. People like Joseph Goebbels and Edward Bernays knew them well. When a trusted voice speaks, unless its message is entirely unreasonable, most people will not question it; if you trust someone, then you typically don’t consider the truthfulness of their statements.
It’s interesting that most of the shaming incidents covered in this book take place on Twitter, but for some reason Ronson doesn’t see this as particularly important. To him it seems to be like saying “the shaming happened in the town square”, but Twitter is about as far from a representation of the proverbial town square as one can get. What is true is that we are living in a world where major media outlets are more and more beholden to social media. As the juggernaut that crushed it, companies as respected as The New York Times don’t know what else to do but quote social media, and specifically Twitter as the authoritative source of the attitudes of the hoi polloi. Ronson may be too enthralled by Twitter to be critical of it, but his lack of critique of how the platform leads to the online shaming phenomenon is a glaring weakness in an otherwise good book. Almost all of the online shamings he discusses take place on Twitter.
Probably because it’s the only openly searchable social network. Every day there are hundreds of articles written in the mainstream press quoting things Twitter users have to say. Sometimes they attribute the account names, sometimes they don’t. But quoting Twitter users on anything is a profound mistake. As the smallest social network (the game Candy Crush has more users) Twitter is not even remotely close to accurately portraying the attitudes of the American public. So why do journalists keep using it as a source? First, they are probably under intense pressure to find out “what the Internet thinks” about a topic. But the real reason might be a little less honorable: Twitter is so full of drama and outrage how could you possibly not quote it?
If you take the subset of users on Twitter that are not corporations, celebrities, sport-figures or politicians (the people that are on Twitter because they feel it benefits their brand) then you are left with the rest of the user base, which is made up of a relatively small amount of people, most of whom never actually tweet. A few hours on Twitter will show you that the most vocal members of Twitter are usually anonymous accounts, which can be confrontational and verbally abusive. Tweet about anything remotely political and you will be greeted by a host of these zombie accounts angrily denouncing you. So much for the Internet’s public square.
The other thing that Twitter does could be called the tyranny of the minority. Because there are so few people on Twitter, and most don’t participate, peripheral, typically extreme viewpoints seem to dominate and are thus given more weight than they actually have in the real world. This has taken place to such an extent that at least at this point in time Twitter has become the left’s corollary to Fox News. Fox News exists in its own bubble of reality. There is nothing that any critic can say that would have the smallest effect on Fox News viewership. In much the same way Twitter is the forum for the extreme Left, where any criticism is quickly greeted by an ad hominem attack, where actual dialogue is almost impossible. Perhaps it can be traced to Twitter’s dialectical nature of 160 character statements, wherein one person states something and the other person must react or they lose. The platform does not lend itself to community, only finding the people who agree with you and fighting against those that don’t.
I’m focusing on Twitter because most of Ronson’s book takes place in and around incidents on the social media site. At one point he even talks about his love of Twitter. However, many critics and investors have been wary of Twitter’s future because of the hostile atmosphere it engenders. Twitter’s main usability issue, and what helps foster aggressiveness, is not often discussed and poorly understood. You can be anonymous or use your true identity on the site, which leads to trouble. The dual-use of anonymity and real accounts creates a divide where the people who are using their actual identities on the platform are subject to constant abuse from anonymous accounts, which don’t have anything to lose by the abuse. This is a recipe for disaster for a social networking company. If Twitter does not address the problem most real people and corporations will either abandon the platform or completely ignore all interactions directed at them. I tend to believe the former will occur as businesses, organizations and people who depend on their reputation to make a living realize they are leaving a permanent, searchable record of what the trollish Twitter user-base is saying about them.
What’s the antidote for shaming? Another retweet, another click, more outrage, it all results in too many dopamine hits, ego trips and advertising dollars for it to easily be stopped. What Ronson illuminates by the end of the book is that it’s necessary for those being shamed to stand up for themselves. Shaming only works if the victims begin issuing apologies and saying how sorry they are, hoping that the online world will believe they meant no harm. By doing this they feed directly into the shamer’s narrative. If you stand up for yourself, Ronson shows, and insist that you have done nothing wrong, the shamer’s narrative falls apart and what would otherwise have been a disaster can be avoided.
With So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Ronson has written a timely, interesting and titillating read for any Internet drama junkie. More importantly, he has shown that what we hear being amplified through the megaphone of social media is best taken with a large dose of skepticism. As Ronson describes, “Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist — the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it onto others.” We aren’t going to be able to stop the media from trafficking in drama and outrage anytime soon, but we can begin to learn to think first before reacting.