Jon Ronson’s new book is making us think twice about dragging people over the social media coals
Have you ever Twitter-shamed anyone?
If you’re any kind of regular user with opinions, the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’ – although you probably didn’t think of it as shaming at the time.
Maybe you thought of it as ‘calling out’, shining a light on a dreadful comment or behaviour. Maybe you thought it was funny. Maybe you retweeted an angry post because you agreed with it, or because everyone else seemed to and you didn’t want to be left out. Maybe you thought if you didn’t wave a little ‘I’m angry’ flag, people might assume you were a terrible person too.
And after all, one of the best things about social media is its egalitarianism, right? Nobodies can become heroes, everybody can have a voice and everybody can be held accountable for their behaviour in a public forum – which is a bit like sending people to the stocks or the ducking stool, yes… but much, much more civilised.
Or is it? We might be on the brink of a total rethink when it comes to social media shaming, thanks to journalist Jon Ronson. The author of massive hits like The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test (the most reassuring take-out from which is the fact that if you’re worried you might be a psychopath, you’re definitely not one), Ronson’s latest offering is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he spends two years talking to people whose lives have been upended by furious Twitter mobs.
People like Justine Sacco, who earned notoriety when she tweeted an AIDS joke just before boarding an 11-hour flight – and landed to find she was unemployed, and had become a worldwide trending topic. Or Jonah Lehrer, a young writer whose career was left in tatters after it was revealed that he’d made up some quotes from Bob Dylan.
The book’s encounters shed a different light on the villains of our favourite Twitterstorms, and force us to think about what we’ve probably suspected for a while: that tearing apart someone’s life for the sake of 140 ill-judged characters might, possibly, not be ok.
After all, tweets can be deleted but the internet has both an impressive long-term memory and a very short attention span. We’ll kick up a stink that can’t ever be completely erased, but we can rarely be bothered to sit around and listen to the apologies and explanations. Where huge fanbases are concerned, reactions can often be stunningly out of proportion – as our editor Holly found when she dared criticise (the famously kind, respectful) Chris Brown. Shaming those who seem truly deserving doesn’t always help, either. Katie Hopkins and Jan Moir have been repeatedly held up as hateful bigots, but they don’t look any less likely to keep on offending people.
Then there are the many layers of morality around the question of a person’s right to privacy and forgiveness. After Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, Jezebel published a post in which they rounded up racist tweets from high school students, along with their names, profile photos, the school they attended and the sports and hobbies they participated in. While the bigotry called out in the feature made for shuddering reading, many also criticised Jezebel for posting the teenagers’ details so publicly.
‘I’m not sure how I feel about their names being compiled in an article to be in their Internet history forever,’ said one commenter. ‘Racist pieces of s**t like this should face consequences, sure, but some of these kids are minors and I imagine the idea that they can spew this b******t is largely influenced by racist parents and peers.’
Just as we’ve never quite been able to make our mind up about whether or not it’s ok to be a tattletale at school, so the internet age still hasn’t decided whether ‘calling out’ is still beneficial when it drags the culprit over the coals so such an extent that they can’t get into college, or find another job.
Ronson has experienced the full-circle rollercoaster of shaming himself; in 2012 he confronted a group of academics who had ripped off his identity and created a spambot pretending to be him. When they refused to take the spambot down and Ronson posted a video of the encounter, his Twitter followers took up the mantle of rage and shamed the academics into taking down the spambot.
‘It felt wonderful,’ he admits. ‘The wonderful feeling overwhelmed me like a sedative. Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right.’
You probably don’t need to read the book to guess that his wonderful feeling, unlike some of the internet’s most enthusiastic shaming, didn’t last for ever.
5 memorable social media storms…
1. Justine Sacco
One of the most dramatic Twitter tempests since records began (er, 2006), the tale of Justine Sacco has served as both a warning to flippant tweeters and a model of mob mentality for the social media age. The senior director of corporate communications at IAC had only 170 followers when she tweeted ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ before boarding an 11-hour flight to Cape Town. By the time her plane touched down, she had over 2000 retweets and #HasJustineLandedYet was the no.1 worldwide trending topic.
Had she not been on a plane while the furore kicked off, things might have turned out differently. ‘Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc,’ says Jon Ronson, who interviewed Justine several times for his book. She claimed the tweet had been intended as satire, a comment on America’s ignorance about the developing world – but within a day of the remark, Justine had been fired from her job and went on to spend four weeks volunteering in Ethiopia while the hysteria died down.
Months later, she described to Ronson the impact the scandal had on everything from her mental health to her family life, career and her ability to date. ‘I had a great career, and I loved my job, and it was taken away from me, and there was a lot of glory in that,’ she said. ‘Everybody else was very happy about that.’
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2. Adria Richards and the dongle guy
In March 2013, developer Adria Richards went to the PyCon conference in California and overhead two men make a joke behind her about ‘big dongles’. Fed up with hearing systematically sexist comments in the tech industry, Richards took a photo of the culprits and tweeted it.
It took just a handful of retweets and two days of online outrage for one of the men to be fired from his job at gaming company PlayHaven – and only a few more for Richards to start receiving a torrent of racist and misogynistic hate herself, including rape threats, death threats, and security attacks on her employers, SendGrid. She was also fired from her job.
‘SendGrid threw me under the bus. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone,’ said Richards. Nobody came out of Donglegate covered in glory, but among the many lessons learned all round, one thing was clear: speaking out about sexism is still fraught with risk – and there aren’t many companies willing to publicly defend their employees’ mistakes.
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3. Chloe Hamilton’s Zoella takedown
Independent journalist Chloe Hamilton felt the full power of a gale-force Twitterstorm last year when she wrote a column criticising YouTube sensation Zoella. Hamilton admonished the uber-vlogger for her ‘inane chatter’, ‘sickly sweet girl power’ and for talking about self esteem and anxiety despite having ‘forged an entire career by prattling on to young girls about how to look good’.
Shockingly, Zoella’s worldwide fan base wasn’t best pleased. The article was shared 30,000 times and objections to Chloe’s views quickly turned into objections to Chloe’s appearance, then into threats, vile insults and calls for her to be sacked. ‘The outpouring of hate was so venomous it kept me awake at night and had me looking over my shoulder for days,’ said Chloe, who avoided Twitter for days and even called in a PR pro to handle the torrent of angry responses.
‘I poked the angry bear, so I must take criticism on the chin. And I do,’ she acknowledged in a follow-up column a week later. ‘But it is never acceptable to bombard a writer – or anyone else for that matter – with a torrent of threats simply because they spoke their mind. That’s social media at its very worst.’
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4. Lindsey Stone
When professional caregiver Lindsey Stone and her colleague Jamie took a work trip to Washington DC, they did something many, many have done before them: they dicked around and took photos of it. Following an (off duty) tradition of taking lol-tastic photos mimicking statues and disrespecting signs, one of their Facebook holiday snaps featured Lindsey pretending to shout and flick a sweary finger in front of a sign saying ‘Silence and Respect’ at Arlington National Cemetery.
For a month, nothing happened – then one day, everything happened. ‘Lindsey Stone hates the military and hates soldiers who have died in foreign wars,’ declared online commenters, as the photo was shared at a rate of knots. ‘You should rot in hell,’ said another. There were rape threats, death threats, calls to send Lindsey to prison – and, within hours, a Facebook page called ‘Fire Lindsey Stone’ with 12,000 likes.
Stone woke up to camera crews outside her house, and the Facebook group soon had its wish granted as she was immediately sacked from her job. Jon Ronson’s research revealed that after being so publicly dragged through the internet mud, Lindsey became depressed, insomniac, and barely left her house for a year. While her face was turned into a meme and paraded across the internet by furious pro-military campaigners, everyone else learned a very valuable lesson: check your Facebook privacy settings.
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5. Justin D’Agostino
You don’t have to look back far in the Shiny Shiny archives to find a social storm. In fact, you don’t have to look back further than Monday, when we told the tale of San Francisco tech reporter Justin D’Agostino, who sent an eye-wateringly sexist email to software developer Kelly Ellis.
Met with a wall of hot, fresh internet rage, Justin then pulled a move that has been employed by wrongdoers since the dawn of time – and failed, reliably, every single time. He tried to pretend it was all a stunt ‘to get her attention’. Oh right, a stunt! Oh that’s fine then! As you were.
We’ll have to wait and see whether Kelly will end up apologising to Justin for the hurt caused in publicly shaming him. It seems unlikely from where we’re standing – but in the life of the internet, much stranger things have happened.[/nextpage]
Main image: Flickr/petesimon