So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015.*
Summary: Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience.
If you have any kind of presence on social media, this book should give you pause. In fact, even if you are not on social media, it might make you think. Any kind of transgression, whether an offensive statement, or an impulsive act can become the object of a public shaming campaign on social media. It often can be vicious, pervasive, you can even lose your job, and it stays there–on the internet.
Jon Ronson begins by describing how he used shaming to free himself from a form of identity theft cloaked in academic jargon, as a group of researchers created a spambot identity on Twitter of Ronson. Ronson’s only recourse after a film interview of the spambot creators being cute was to upload a video (yes, they were arrogant enough to allow themselves to be filmed) to expose what they were doing. A vicious series of comments wishing all sorts of unspeakable fates followed. The spambot came down. One more victorious shaming campaign!
Then along comes the case of Jonah Lehrer, a one-time promising science writer exposed by journeyman journalist Michael Moynihan. Moynihan became suspicious of quotes of Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book on creativity. They just didn’t sound like Dylan to him, and it turns out they were fabricated. Other material was plagiarized from press-releases, and from earlier pieces he’d written (self plagiarism, a little more controversial, but the rule is still to cite yourself rather than use the material uncited). When Moynihan published an article it effectively spelled the end of his journalism career. Ronson recounts the eerie scene in St. Louis, where Lehrer attempts a poorly constructed apology, with a live Twitter stream of comments being shown on a screen behind him. Posts like this were typical:
“Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist.” (p. 43)
Lehrer, as far as I can tell is still trying to reconstruct a writing career with a blog focusing on social science writing and recently released A Book About Love which makes a more forthright apology than the St. Louis speech, but has received mixed reviews. Fabrication and plagiarism tend to be career-enders for writers. In Lehrer’s case, social media and the internet make it far worse. A Google search still readily turns up the articles about his transgressions.
Ronson moves on to other lesser-knowns. There is the case of Justine Sacco, working in a New York public relations firm (of all things),who foolishly hit “send” on this tweet:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (p. 64)
She became world number one trending topic on Twitter, before her plane landed, and no efforts to scrub Twitter, or issue an apology could save her job. He recounts the case of “Hank”, who at a software developers conference made a sexually innuendo-ed joke while sitting behind a woman developer, Adria. She turned, photographed him, and tweeted the incident. He came home to find he was out of a job. Eventually he posted something about this to find much of the developer community rally to his cause and shame Adria. Consequently the shamer became not only the shamed, but also lost her job.
As Ronson goes into these accounts, he begins to wonder what they reveal about the shamers, including himself, and their glee, and verbal violence in taking down their targets. Does the anonymity of the internet feed the phenomenon, the social distance between shamer and shamed. He contrasts social media shaming with Judge Ted Poe, who uses public shaming in sentencing. Far from being the “theater of the absurd,” as one blogger called it, Poe maintained, supported by testimony of those he sentenced, that it was the “theater of the effective.” Often, in this kind of public shaming, the defendant ends up being encouraged by people. It is face to face and not anonymous. And it works in turning around lives, maintained Poe.
The latter part of the book explores how people come through shame and explores the interesting idea that those the least apologetic about their shameful activity may cope better. There is the case of Max Mosley, exposed for some rather unusual S & M activities that were alleged to be Nazi scenarios. He turns around and sues the outlet that published this for defamation and wins, on the fact that the Nazi portion of this could not be supported by the facts. He freely admitted his unusual sexual tastes. Ronson also visits shame eradication groups that de-sensitize one to shame. Not exactly his cup of tea.
He explores the case of Lindsey Stone whose friend snapped and posted a picture of her flipping off and shouting at a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that said “Silence and Respect.” The kind of snarky thing lots of kids do, right? Well, the picture went viral, and once again, the comments were vicious, and the result was a lost job. Eventually, Ronson works out a deal with a company that works with online reputations and describes the strategy to bury the damning material way down in search engine results by creating a positive web presence for a person. The goal is to move the damaging stuff to page 2 where nobody ever looks. Their work helps the Lindsey Stone, and others who share her name, mostly by displacing the unsavory image with a host of other photos and web presence under her name.
Ronson’s book raises the question of what much of our “outrage” on social media really reveals, not about the objects of the outrage, but about us. His candor and self-reflectiveness about his own participation in shaming rites on social media invite us to ask, “when have I done this, and what does this say about me?” What I think he doesn’t explore and could be considered is the temptation to be provocative, to push the envelope in order to get more views, comments, follows–the definition of social media success. The closest he gets are the corners Jonah Lehrer cut under the pressures of a burgeoning writing career.
Ronson also reminds us that the consequences of our words on social media have impacts not in virtual reality but in the lives of real people. And his tale reminds us to reflect carefully before hitting the “send”, “post”, or “publish” buttons. Carelessness here could change one’s life, and not in ways one would like. Better re-read this before posting!
*Content and language advisory. Includes descriptions of various forms of sexual expression and profanity.