Imagine that you posted a tweet or Facebook comment and suddenly became the target of an online attack, denounced by thousands of furious commenters. What you had intended as a joke was off-colour or poorly expressed, maybe, but it was nothing all that significant, yet your reputation was savaged.
This is what happened to Justine Sacco, who made an ill-advised tweet just before leaving on a long flight. On arrival, she found out she was the target of a massive campaign of abuse. She lost her job. It took her months to recover her bearings.
Sacco’s story is one of several examined in Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson, a journalist, is the author of a series of highly entertaining books about weird topics. In his book Them he reported on his encounters with individuals holding extreme right-wing views. In The Men Who Stare at Goats – also made into a film – he told about US military experiments with psychic powers.
Ronson decided to investigate a recent phenomenon: public shaming via social media. Public shaming is hardly new. The Puritans famously put criminals in the stocks for public ridicule. What has changed is the ease by which someone’s casual comment can be broadcast to the world and lead to an orgy of abuse.
Ronson’s approach is to pick some juicy case studies and make contact with the key figures, interviewing them and using their stories to make wider points, or just to provide a vivid way of highlighting concerns. He begins with the story of Jonah Lehrer, a highly praised science writer whose books sold millions of copies. Lehrer was caught out having been sloppy in sourcing his claims and then lying about it. He consented to appear on a broadcast where he made a public apology with a twitter feed as a backdrop. His apology was unsuccessful: it triggered even more abuse.
In Lehrer’s case, there might be some sense of karma, in that a high-flyer, living in an expensive house and enjoying fame, was undone by his transgressions, and those who brought him down were lesser mortals simply using tweets. But other cases, such as Justine Sacco’s, show that something more ominous is occurring. Sacco was not a public figure and she didn’t do anything all that terrible: she made one tweet, a social comment in the form of a poorly expressed joke, and paid an exorbitant penalty. Ronson points out that we now live in a society in which deviations from some arbitrary orthodoxy of proper behaviour may be punished, in a seemingly arbitrary way, by a storm of online abuse. Meanwhile, there are plenty of big-time criminals of the white collar variety who escape public censure.
Ronson’s journey led him to Max Mosley, son of the leader of Britain’s Nazi Party during the 1930s, who made a life for himself in the motorcar racing scene. Mosley was outed in the mass media for engaging in S&M orgies, alleged to be Nazi-themed. Having the juicy details of these orgies recounted to the public would be, for most individuals, excruciatingly humiliating, but Mosley was unbowed, fighting the media in court – despite this leading to further publicity – and winning. Mosley was seemingly unperturbed by the exposures. He had been publicly shamed, but did not feel shame himself.
Ronson wanted to know whether Mosley’s emotional resilience could be replicated, so he joined a class run by Brad Blanton, who specialises in helping people overcome shame. Blanton’s technique is to invite course participants to reveal their deepest secrets to each other and discover that the feared consequences do not occur. Ronson observed a seeming competition by those present to reveal the most horrifying information about themselves – for example, having sex with cats – and was castigated when he himself could tell only of a few pallid transgressions of good taste. This deshaming technique seemed to be a dead end.
Ronson’s journey then took him in another direction: what to do for a person whose Google profile is overwhelmed by abusive comment. After public shaming episodes, Google searches for the person’s name bring up one derogatory comment after another. In Europe, there is now a right to be forgotten: requests can be made to Google to remove links. However, this works imperfectly for a number of reasons, including that there are some people publicising those who have sought Google-search invisibility and because searches outside Europe will still give the undesired results.
Ronson discovered a firm of reputation managers who, for a hefty fee, manipulate Google rankings. Ronson wanted to watch this in action, so he asked the firm if they would waive the fee if he could follow the operation and write about it — thereby providing publicity. Ronson found the ideal candidate for this treatment in Lindsay Stone, a disability worker who liked iconoclastic stunts, and who made the mistake of posting a photo of her shooting the bird (raising her middle finger) in front of a military cemetery. She was savaged on the web, and every search for “Lindsay Stone” led to abusive comments about her. She lost her job and became depressed, all for a silly prank. Others named Lindsay Stone were affected too: their Google profiles were obscured by the vitriol directed at the transgressing Lindsay Stone.
The reputation-management firm interviewed Stone, found out about positive or neutral aspects of her life, and gradually put up positive mentions about her (and other Lindsay Stones too). In a matter of months, the abusive comments were pushed to page 2 on Google, where few searchers bother to examine the links. However, to maintain this state of affairs, continuing efforts were required. This service doesn’t come cheap. Stone was exempted from the fee, but for others it might cost $100,000. Manipulating Google rankings is not easy for ordinary people who incur the wrath of an online mob.
Ronson, in studying public shaming, is on to an important topic. Shame is a crucially important emotion, and can be used for positive or negative purposes. On the positive side, shaming can be used as a method of rehabilitation: when people break laws and hurt others, the usual criminal sanctions are trials, fines and imprisonment. An alternative is meeting face-to-face with victims, making an apology and doing work in restitution. This approach can be a powerful and humane way of reintegrating transgressors into the community.
On the other hand, shame can be debilitating. In schools and workplaces, students and workers are constantly compared with each other and encouraged to feel ashamed when they do not measure up to expectations. Eventually, individuals start shaming themselves. For example, when they see a co-worker who is more productive, better looking or more vivacious, they feel bad about themselves. This is especially common in toxic work environments where bullying is rife. One part of surviving in such environments is to not accept the judgements of others and not to shame oneself, as addressed by Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare in their book Work Abuse.
This was the challenge Ronson pondered when interviewing Max Mosley, who did not feel ashamed by the publicity about his sex orgies. Journalists and others tried to shame Mosley, but he was having none of it: he did not feel it personally.
The crucial step in challenging damaging shaming rituals is to refuse to accept the judgement of others. With emotional distance and independence, it is possible then to think in a clear way about responses. If shaming only affected emotions, this would be a complete response, but shaming rituals affect friends, many of whom drop away, and employers, who may fire or refuse to hire the target of abuse.
Shaming is not inherently bad. What is wrong is when it is disproportionate to what a person has done and serves no positive purpose. If someone is guilty of a violent assault or of stealing millions of dollars of investor funds, then shame can be a valuable tool for reintegration into society, with a changed consciousness that reduces the risk of repeat offences. But when the transgression is minor, such as making a racist or sexist remark, it hardly seems fair that a person’s reputation is trashed and career ended. This is not to excuse racist and sexist remarks, but there are so many of them that a harsh penalty for an unlucky target is unfair. If thousands of people jaywalk every day, it is not fair to single out one particular jaywalker for a massive fine or a stint in jail.
Ronson says that public shamings have a mob aspect, and he regrets having participated in many such shamings before he embarked on his investigation. To me, these collective manifestations of abuse suggest a role for the psychological process called projection, in which individuals disown a negative part of their own personality and attribute it to others, sometimes attacking them. A classic example is homophobia, in which men refuse to accept their own homosexual urges, seeing them as terrible, and instead see them in others, and attack those others.
In public shamings, participants are able to feel better about themselves in two ways. First, they feel good because their own transgressive impulses, for example to think inappropriate things, are disowned and attributed to a single target, who can be safely condemned and abused through electronic means. Secondly, they obtain the warm feeling of being part of a crowd with a common purpose. This is togetherness in righteousness. Ronson points out that public shamings are serving to narrow the bounds of permissible behaviour. Everyone must conform, otherwise they risk assault by the crowd.
The cases chosen by Ronson highlight the arbitrariness of public rituals of spontaneous condemnation, with most of the targets he has selected being just unfortunate. There is another type of public shaming, when it is instigated as a tool in a type of power struggle. Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist and public commentator, was targeted by his opponents, who covertly recorded one of his talks and posted a misleadingly labelled excerpt from it, with the express intent of damaging Flanagan’s credibility and career. Flanagan’s methods of responding, described in his book Persona Non Grata, are a model for others. Some dissident scientists are subject to degradation rituals intended to cast them out of the scientific community – and there are ways for them to resist.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is the most entertaining book on shame available, and might serve as a warning to be careful about what you put online. A more important message is to avoid joining in episodes of public shaming.