In 2006, The Times of London described what it called the first “Web rage” attack: a middle-aged London man tracked down and knifed another man with whom he had been arguing in an online chat room. For most of us, vehement exchanges in the furiously paced world of online comment sections and social-media platforms will not end in physical violence. But as Jon Ronson argues in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, they can still destroy lives.
Ronson, a British writer whose previous books have explored psychopaths and the U.S. Army’s experiments with the paranormal, explores the technology-enabled resurgence of public humiliation on platforms such as Twitter. “We have always had some influence over the justice system,” Ronson writes, “but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments.”
Ronson is himself an avid Twitter user and confesses to being a participant in virtual shaming. “I’d torn apart a lot of people I couldn’t now remember—which made me suspect that it was coming from some weird dark well, some place I really didn’t want to think about.” He explores new forms of public shaming through a series of interviews with victims of this new form of “digilante” justice. His first victim, it turns out, is himself.
In 2012, Ronson discovered that a group of young academics had established a Twitter account in his name and were sending out ridiculous (often food-related) tweets that had “Jon Ronson” swooning over celeriac and lemongrass kebabs, among other things. When Ronson confronts his online identity hijackers and asks them to take down the account, they demur as only academics can, claiming the fake Twitter handle is not an embarrassing spambot but an “infomorph” that is “repurposing social-media data into an infomorphic esthetic.” Although Ronson eventually succeeds in getting the academics to back down, his victory is the result of their being shamed: He recorded an interview with the men and posted it online, which prompted an avalanche of supportive responses from social-media users. “Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right,” Ronson notes.
But Ronson was curious about what happened to people who were on the wrong side of our “great renaissance of public shaming.” Consider Justine Sacco, a publicist from New York who tweeted an offensive joke to her followers just before boarding a flight to South Africa in 2013. Her remark was retweeted and quickly spread across social media. By the time her plane landed, and unbeknownst to her, she had become the number-one trend on Twitter, with millions of strangers avidly awaiting her inevitable denouement. “We are about to watch this @JusticeSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired,” one Twitter user wrote. Sacco lost her job and endured months of harassment online and offline. “With social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama,” Ronson argues. “Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain.” The simplicity and instantaneity of the medium, its great strength, also contributes to its lack of nuance. Everyone becomes a bit Manichean on Twitter. “Angry Twitter” might have other consequences too: Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that “expressions of negative emotions such as anger, stress, and fatigue in a county’s tweets were associated with higher heart-disease risk.”
Ronson explores many varieties of the shaming experience. He talks to Ted Poe, a judge in Houston who is well known for his use of old-school public-shaming techniques. One drunk-driving defendant in Poe’s court was required to stand once a month in front of schools and bars carrying a sign that read, “I killed two people while driving drunk.” Poe also made him keep photographs of his victims in his wallet. When Ronson follows up with the man Poe punished, he expects to find a bitter and defensive victim of excessive public shaming. Instead he finds him running a Sober Living home in Texas, “forever grateful” to the judge who forced him to take responsibility for his actions. By contrast, as Judge Poe tells Ronson, social-media shamings are “brutal,” in part because their participants have no connection to the victim; they act as judge, jury, and executioner without ever having to look the “defendant” in the eye. It is the lack of these in-person cues—facial expression, body language, tone of voice—that lead us to say online what we would never express to someone standing right in front of us. Researchers even have a term for this: the “online disinhibition effect.”
Ronson has a healthy appreciation for the absurd and is a sympathetic chronicler of human foibles, including his own. He describes a hilarious interlude with a “porn impresario” named Princess Donna Dolore of Kink.com studios, a self-appointed crusader against shame who urges people to embrace their desires, however unusual. Ronson observes participants of a Dolore-produced porn film at a seedy sports bar in the San Fernando Valley. The film is for a site called Public Disgrace, which specializes in staging scenes of men and women being sexually humiliated in public places. (Ronson, ever the thoughtful guest, worries that he might accidentally have wandered into view during one of the more vigorous scenes in the film.) Despite the subject matter, which included a woman enduring painful electric shocks while having sex, he found the porn professionals very nice and the set “a more mindful working environment than most regular offices.”
Ronson also explores the therapeutic side of shame by signing up for a “Radical Honesty” workshop in Chicago, which turns out to be far more disturbing (and far less satisfying) than the porn shoot. He even reluctantly agrees to try dressing as a woman for a story, only to change his mind at the last minute because of “my terror of humiliation.” Ronson’s reporting sensibility is intrepid and ecumenical, and he is very funny; think: Margaret Mead–meets–Groucho Marx. He is good company, even when exploring the less appealing side of our desire to shame.
Ronson’s most interesting case study is the story of Max Mosley, a British Formula One racing executive well known mostly because his parents were Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, and Diana Mitford, one of the dazzling Mitford sisters (Joseph Goebbels hosted the Mosley’s wedding, which Hitler attended). Having unrepentant Fascists for parents is difficult enough; but in 2008 the tabloid News of the World published grainy photos of Max Mosley engaged in what they called a “sick Nazi orgy” at an S&M dungeon in London.
Such a revelation might have spelled doom for someone else, but as Ronson notes, Mosley immediately went on BBC4 Radio and acknowledged that he had a kinky sex life (Princess Dolore would approve) and stated that he had done nothing wrong. “If our shameworthiness lies in the space between who we are and how we present ourselves to the world,” Ronson writes, “Max was narrowing that gap to nothing.” Mosley successfully sued the now-defunct News of the World for claiming his activities were Nazi-tinged when in fact they were not (the evening merely had a martial theme, he noted). Mosley told Ronson that he refused to feel ashamed by the exposure. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he told Ronson, “the whole thing crumbles.”
The only false note in the book—or, rather, false victim—is Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer, a popular science writer for the New Yorker and bestselling author, saw his career unravel when he was found to have plagiarized and fabricated quotations on numerous occasions. The errors were not mere sloppiness; two of his books were so misleading and error-plagued that his publisher pulled them from shelves and pulped them. But Ronson, who interviewed Lehrer, wants to see Lehrer as another victim of overzealous public shaming. He notes that an “apology” speech Lehrer delivered at a Knight Foundation luncheon, for which he was paid $20,000 and during which a live Twitter feed of harsh comments scrolled behind him on a screen, was especially demeaning.
Ronson’s empathy for Lehrer is admirable, but it seems misplaced. Lehrer acts less like a contrite writer than a kind of journalistic Nixon, making every effort to cover up his crimes and dealing in deception and evasion when questioned about his work. The overwhelming sense one gets (even after Ronson’s attempt at a sympathetic portrait) is that while Lehrer’s professional status might temporarily have waned, his hubris remains intact. He doesn’t seem shamed at all. Indeed, even Lehrer’s time in the wilderness is brief: He is listed as a co-author on a soon-to-be-released book (about “the digital mind” and how we behave differently on screens, as it happens) and has signed a deal to write another book about love and redemption. He is less a victim than a modern-day P.T. Barnum, his pseudo-intellectual humblebragging having replaced Barnum’s humbug.
“Every crowd has a silver lining,” Barnum once said. But unlike Jonah Lehrer, who has agents and resources at his disposal to facilitate his rehabilitation, ordinary people who have faced the crowd’s wrath online have few options for restoring their reputation.
And so Ronson performs a kind of public service by enlisting the help of Reputation.com, a company that claims it can outsmart Google’s search algorithms so that negative results are buried and your online reputation is restored. They agreed to offer their services, pro bono, to Lindsey Stone, a woman who made the unfortunate mistake of posting a photo of herself at Arlington Cemetery pretending to scream while giving the middle finger in front a sign requesting “Silence and Respect.” A silly prank, but one that ricocheted across the Internet and, as with Justine Sacco, turned her into a pariah. As Ronson notes, that five seconds of her life became her “entire Internet presence.”
Much to Lindsey’s relief, Reputation.com’s magic works. But, as Ronson points out, “the sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken,” precisely the things the Internet is often praised for allowing. Reputation.com’s job was to manufacture for her a more milquetoast online presence. “We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland,” Ronson writes. “We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”
It is here that Ronson’s book would have benefited from a more detailed discussion of the differences between shame and embarrassment.
Embarrassment is a social emotion; it is what we feel when our behavior doesn’t match other’s expectations. Public shaming is the judgment of the group that a person has acted outside its boundaries. It is supposed to function as a kind of barometer for acceptable behavior, and Ronson excels at showing just how extreme we have become in using it. But he also avoids delving too deeply into how we have been active participants in recalibrating this barometer by commodifying shame. We eagerly consume the staged shamelessness of a slew of reality-TV shows. Websites such as TMZ.com track the misbehavior of celebrities, and mugshot websites post the hapless faces of ordinary people who have been arrested. The screen is a kind of mirror, and our species likes to preen (let him who hath not Googled himself cast the first stone). Ronson could afford to be a little more scolding about our need to take an honest look at what we see there.
He could also be tougher on the role technology companies play in his story.
Shameful information is still information, and when Ronson asks an economist to make a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much money Google might reasonably have made off the traffic from the Justine Sacco scandal, the economist suggests a conservative figure of $120,000. Twitter also profits from traffic and has made only a few half-hearted attempts to control cruel comments and harassment on the site. As at most technology companies, it is the quantity, not the quality, of communication that matters most to their corporate bottom line.
Although Ronson doesn’t mention it, Max Mosley last year sued Google in the UK over privacy violations (for failing to remove the News of the World pictures of Mosley at the orgy from Google image searches). Mosley told the BBC: “As the gateway to the internet Google makes enormous profits and has great influence, so I have not taken this action lightly. But Google should operate within the law rather than according to rules it makes itself.”
Online we can all play at both vulnerability and retribution. And the anonymity that allows our viciousness also allows us to quickly move past the emotional roadkill we leave behind. When a scandal hits, Twitter users gather like flies signaling the presence of a fresh carcass. Or, as Ronson puts it: “When shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes, nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
That’s why Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is deeply unsettling, no matter how palatable he tries to make it. He takes a sharp look at the potential rot that lurks within some of our shiny, powerful technologies. He reveals just how swift, permanent, and often deeply unfair our judgments of one another can be. And he forces us to see the human beings behind the shamings. These stories—about Justine, Max, Lindsay, and others—stay with you. We read them as a cautionary tale, to assure ourselves that they are the kind of stories we’ll never have to read about ourselves. Until, one day, we do.