Interview: Jon Ronson on his new book, So You Think You've Been Publicly Shamed
Journalist and broadcaster investigates a new kind of threat: it’s us, on social media
The pros and cons of the internet have long been a source for great debate – and with the rise of social media, the arguments are raging even further. For Jon Ronson, journalist, broadcaster and highly active member of the Twitterati, on balance it’s all just about on the right side of OK. But as he noted during the creation of his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a rather disturbing trend has emerged.
Normal, regular people have taken to being really rather nasty on Twitter and Facebook towards other normal, regular people who have committed momentary acts of indiscretion and foolishness. In the most extreme examples, this has led to the latter losing their jobs and having their reputations destroyed while the former simply get on with their day having just lit a particularly devastating touch paper.
‘For years I’ve been writing about the baffling behaviour of people in psychiatry or the military or the Bilderberg Group or the Ku Klux Klan. But suddenly we have become the baffling group.’ This turnaround has come as something of a shock to Ronson, the writer behind books such as Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, all of which are riddled with great wit while featuring terrifying yet all-too real characters.
During the course of researching So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson met up with a selection of people who have suffered from the power of a social network which has captured and amplified their ‘crimes’, allowing legions of strangers to pile in with their trolling tuppenceworth. Jobs have been lost, families torn apart and reputations destroyed, all for the sake of a pack mentality that operates solely for the rush of getting a retweet. ‘We were acting like the sort of people that we think are lunatics, like the East German secret police informers,’ states Ronson. ‘But when you analyse what’s going on, we’re the crazy people.’
Take the example of Lindsey Stone. A care worker with Life, an American organisation which supports adults with learning difficulties, she helped organise and run a trip to Washington DC which took in many of the country’s major monuments and sites, including the Arlington National Cemetery. Lindsey and her co-worker Jamie had a running joke where they would take photos of themselves goofing around. This included Lindsey posing beside a sign at Arlington which requested silence and respect: she was snapped with her middle finger raised while pretending to shout.
Agreeing together that this was harmless yet hilarious, Jamie posted the image on her Facebook page and, with her consent, tagged Lindsey. From there, all hell broke loose with initial tut-tutting from friends careering into death and rape threats from strangers. A Facebook page was set up demanding her sacking while she was also doorstepped by camera crews. Stone was fired, suffered depression and insomnia and almost never went out. Even now that she has re-entered the jobs market, she is ever fearful that an employer will stumble upon the controversy and show her the door. Just because of an ill-judged incident.
Other examples in Ronson’s book are Justine Sacco, a publicist who tweeted a racist comment (though it’s possible that it could actually be interpreted as anti-racist) just before getting on a flight to South Africa; Jonah Lehrer, a writer who manipulated quotes from Bob Dylan and then lied about it while later he was also caught re-using his own work across different articles; and two men who chuckled at double entendres while attending a conference for tech developers. All they have in common is that their actions triggered online moral outrage and a campaign to have their lives upturned forever.
‘There’s a bunch of interesting, complicated things happening all at once here,’ notes Ronson. ‘We’ve become like drone strike operators. We press the button and don’t have to think any more about it, yet we’ve just blown up a village. I had this email conversation with [documentary-maker] Adam Curtis that Vice published and he put it very well: it’s like currency to buy friends, it’s feedback reinforcement. So, Justine Sacco is a bit of data we pass around to make people like us. This human being becomes a play thing to make us feel like good people because we’ve torn apart someone who is a racist (though she isn’t as far as I could tell). And it’s a way that the people in our friend group can congratulate us and we can congratulate them. It’s all just a way of cementing that.’
While one of the consequences of all this shaming appears to be that people are a little more wary about posting online and might tiptoe around their own opinions for fear of being publicly flayed (though alcohol and a smartphone will always remain a very bad combination), Ronson hopes that his book will alter those on the other side of the argument.
‘This book confronts the question of what we do about a person’s failings,’ he says. ‘Social media and the real justice system are both about condemning the wrong sort of weakness. When people say the wrong thing or have workplace transgressions or come across as accidentally bigoted, social media proposes that they shouldn’t be forgiven. There’s no re-entry for them. And that is chilling. I just want people to think: do you really want to be unforgiving? Because I don’t. Without sounding overly pompous here, understanding and empathising with weakness are what my life’s work has been about. And suddenly the world I live in has hardened when it comes to weakness. Do you really want to be that? Do you want to be an unfeeling jerk?’
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is out on Mon 9 Mar, published by Picador.
An Evening of Public Shaming with Jon Ronson takes place at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 20 Mar, as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival.