News, fast and slow

Are you wasting your time watching the news?

watching politics on the screen

How much time do you spend following the daily news? Some people pay no attention; others watch a half-hour TV news show every day; yet others scour a range of Internet sources, looking for different angles on breaking stories. Some may devote a couple of hours daily to keeping up with the latest stories.

Some years ago, I did a study of the Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed in just a few months in 1994 in the African country of Rwanda. My aim was to look at tactics used by the perpetrators to reduce outrage over their actions, so I read comprehensive accounts of the genocide. I tracked down a dozen or so books, found various articles and watched some videos. Prior to this study, I had heard about the genocide in news reports, but after studying it in some depth years later, I realised that I hadn’t really understood much about it — and it was far worse than I had imagined.

The studies of the Rwandan genocide led me to some related writings about wars in central Africa, especially in the Congo (officially the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I was astounded to discover that millions of people had died. I didn’t remember hearing much about that. Some sources called this the First African World War. It was salutary to remember that the so-called First World War was primarily a European war.

Congo soldiers

This experience got me thinking. During the 1990s, I had probably spent 30 minutes per day consuming the news, primarily by reading newspapers, a total of 180 hours. Would I have been better informed by instead spending those 180 hours reading authoritative studies of important world events? I think so. Careful studies are seldom very current. After all, as more information becomes available, it’s possible to write a more definitive and thoughtful analysis of events and their meaning and significance. So what’s the advantage of having the latest news?

Biases in the news

Western news reporting is systematically biased in a number of ways, so following the news gives a highly distorted view of the world. Bias in world news is especially important because few people have personal knowledge about events in other countries. Think about the wars in central Africa, with millions dead, but little coverage in western media. Other conflicts received disproportionate attention. The conflict in Israel-Palestine, with some 5000 deaths since 1990, receives vastly more coverage. Why should it be so?


The answer is provided by Virgil Hawkins in his important book Stealth Conflicts. He analyses attention given to conflicts since the end of the cold war. He starts by enumerating the most deadly conflicts – such as those in the Congo, Angola, Burundi, Liberia and Algeria – on down to far less deadly ones such as Israel-Palestine. Then he examines attention given to the different conflicts by four groups: governments, media, non-government organisations, and academics.

Virgil Hawkins

One of Hawkins’ conclusions is that most coverage and attention is concentrated on a few chosen conflicts, such as Bosnia in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s, while most of the others escape attention: they occur by stealth. He says there appears to be no correlation between how deadly a conflict is and how much attention it receives from any of the four groups. Academics, who you might expect would have the opportunity to study the full range of deadly conflicts, are swayed by agendas set by governments and the mass media. Even human rights organisations are pushed to follow these same agendas: in order to obtain funding from governments, foundations and the public, they need to address problems that others think are important. There are many honourable exceptions, but according to Hawkins the overall trends are clear. Wars and deaths in Africa, especially south of the Sahara, are almost invisible so far as the rest of the world is concerned. Even media in African countries will often report on conflicts far afield, in Afghanistan or Iraq, yet hardly mention a major conflict in a neighbouring African country.

Hawkins points out that the wars in the Congo led to nearly as many deaths as all other conflicts in the world since the end of the cold war, but they have received little attention.

Hawkins’ diagram of death tolls. The big circle is Congo.

This led me to reflect on my reading about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, about which a fair bit has been written. There is even a major Hollywood film, Hotel Rwanda. But few people know that the aftermath of the genocide was an invasion of the Congo by forces from Rwanda and other countries, leading to massive loss of life. One of the challenges is the complexity of the events. There is no simple storyline for media, governments and others to adopt.


The standard news values of the mass media, for example putting priority on conflict, locality and prominent individuals, mean that some important stories receive little attention. The media’s quest for markets leads to news as entertainment rather than information. Governments and corporations do what they can to shape news coverage. Using news coverage to become “informed” about international affairs may be like finding out about cars by watching advertisements for them.

Slow news

For some valuable advice, you can read Peter Laufer’s short book Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer. Laufer was a journalist and an avid news consumer, but in the spirit of the slow food movement, he advocates care and caution when dealing with the flood of information now available under the label “news.” He provides 29 rules for understanding and dealing with news. Each one is worthy of consideration.


A basic theme in Slow News is to avoid the rush of urgent news and instead concentrate on solid reporting that provides depth and context, and is not one-sided. In many cases, “breaking news” is based on preliminary information, later found to be incomplete, misleading or simply unimportant. How urgent is it to know about the latest information about a mass shooting in the US, an avalanche in Peru or a bombing in Yemen? Can you wait until tomorrow or the next week? Usually, unless you are directly affected.

CNN-breaking news

Laufer is especially critical of the volume of irrelevant information arriving electronically, for example on Twitter. He is critical of citizen journalism, at least when those involved know little about the topic and do not distinguish between important and trivial information.

Laufer points to the role of governments and corporations in shaping the news. He advises obtaining information from multiple sources that give different points of view while avoiding advertisements pretending to be news stories.

It is apparent that Laufer still likes news. He just prefers it to be solid. He likes to read newspapers in the old-fashioned ink-on-paper version (rule 21: “seek news that does not require batteries”). He advocates avoiding news-only channels like CNN because they recycle the same stories throughout the day. He also advocates cutting back on the number of different forms of media for obtaining news, in particular recommending getting rid of your television, because in a 30-minute news programme there is little content compared to what can be read in a newspaper in the same time.


Rule 22 is “Don’t become a news junkie.” Some people always want to know the latest, and end up spending hours every day, but are seldom all that much better informed.

Laufer likes local news: information about people in the neighbourhood, about things that affect your life, such as what is happening at the local school or government body, or what plans are being made for construction or energy management. The implication is to encourage local journalism, such as neighbourhood newspapers, and cut back on consumption of national and international news.

Local news is where people have the best chance of being able to assess the quality and significance of reporting, because they have personal knowledge and can benefit from additional information. Few people have personal knowledge about what is reported in international news, so biases in selection and emphasis are harder to overcome.

Peter Laufer

This suggests a rule of thumb: for local events, seek rapid information; for distant events, take your time. This brings me back to Hawkins’ treatment of stealth conflicts: international news provides a highly distorted sense of deadly conflicts around the world. So to understand these, for most people it is better to avoid daily news coverage and instead seek authoritative studies giving historical and political context.

On the other hand, perhaps you like to watch the news as a form of entertainment. The latest ructions involving politicians are like a sporting event, or perhaps a soap opera. That’s fine. Just keep in mind that the really important things affecting our lives are probably happening elsewhere, in a slow or stealthy process that slips under the radar of what is called news.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Kathy Flynn for valuable comments.

Learning: how to do it better

We continue to learn our entire lives. Research shows ways to do it better, but this means changing our habits.


Learning — we do it all the time, when reading messages, hearing the news, starting a new job, and in a host of other circumstances. Then there is formal learning, in classrooms and when studying for assignments.

Most people learn how to learn when they are young, and continue with the same methods for most of their life. What if there are better ways to go about it?

Benedict Carey is a long-time science writer, and since 2004 has written for the New York Times. Gradually, he became interested in research on how people learn, and set out on a quest, contacting leading researchers on learning. He was surprised to find that, according to the latest research, what he had done during high school, long sessions of concentrated attention on study topics, was really not all that effective. In his book How We Learn (Random House, 2014), Carey provides an accessible guide to key practical findings from learning research.


Carey makes his account engaging by telling stories about pioneering researchers who developed ideas taken up later. He then spells out the implications for learners, whether they are in schools, universities, jobs or everyday life.

The spacing effect

Which is better: studying for two hours in one session, or for two sessions of one hour each on two different days? The answer is clear: two separate sessions are better, whether you want to learn facts or skills. This shouldn’t be news. In athletics, where learning techniques make the difference between winning and losing, training is normally spaced out. Runners do not postpone training until the day before the race.

Yet generations of students have crammed for exams and other assignments. As an undergraduate, I stayed up all night on several occasions to write essays. It was the only time in my life that I drank coffee! The trouble with cramming is that nearly everything learned is quickly forgotten. Spacing out study is more efficient: you can learn more in less time and retain it longer.


But what’s the best sort of spacing? If you have two weeks to learn the names of the bones in the body, and want to spend a total of two hours studying, is it better to use two sessions of an hour, twelve sessions of 10 minutes, or some other breakdown? And how should the study sessions be spaced? Should one be just before a test? Or, if long-term retention is the goal, what’s the best option? Carey examines what is known about spacing. In general, more spacing is better, but there is still much to be discovered about the optimum spacing for learning different sorts of material.

The testing effect

If you don’t know anything about a topic – for example, Chinese history in the 1700s – then surely the best way to learn about it is to start studying. Actually, though, you’ll learn more efficiently if you take a test on the material before you start, even though you just guess at the answers. Somehow this primes the mind to pay more attention when you do start studying. This is a really strange research finding.

Educationists commonly talk about two types of assessment. Summative assessment measures learning whereas formative assessment is designed to improve learning. Actually, though, all assessment is formative to some degree: it is a method of learning.


Formal assessment is designed by teachers. But there’s another type of testing: self-testing. When you’re studying, you can test yourself regularly. Or you can try to explain the topic to a friend. Testing yourself can overcome the fluency illusion, in which you have the incorrect belief that you know something because it seems familiar. Carey writes:

These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying – the high-octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten – and fast. (p. 103)


Many students think they’re learning only when they’re studying. Therefore, it doesn’t matter when they study, even if it’s at the last moment. It’s just necessary to put in enough hours. The spacing effect shows that something can happen in between study sessions: the unconscious mind engages with the material, and you don’t even notice it happening. There’s another aspect to this process, called the incubation or percolation effect.

Here’s the trick. When studying a topic intensely, it’s actually better to interrupt the process before finishing, and leave the mind to chew away at it before the next session. In terms of writing, this means not finishing an essay, but instead leaving it incomplete for the time being.


When a task isn’t complete, the mind won’t let it alone, so in the long run you learn more by being interrupted at odd times while pursuing a task. Carey:

… we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting. My tendency as a student was always to procrastinate on big research papers and take care of the smaller stuff first. Do the easy reading. Clean the kitchen. Check some things off the to-do list. Then, once I finally sat down to face the big beast, I’d push myself frantically toward the finish line and despair if I didn’t make it.
Quitting before I’m ahead doesn’t put the project to sleep; it keeps it awake. (p. 147)

The incubation effect is used by great creators who bore away at a problem for weeks or months and then take a break – and this is often when the best ideas pop up. The challenge is to trust your own mind and treat interruptions to significant tasks as opportunities rather than sources of worry.


The usual way of learning is to concentrate on a particular task until it is mastered, and then go on to the next task. It sounds logical, but actually there’s a more productive technique, which is to mix up the tasks.

Carey describes the technique of interleaving. Here’s a typical research protocol. One group of students learned artistic styles by looking first at six paintings by one artist, say Braque, and then six by another, say Mylrea, and so on through twelve artists. A different group of students saw exactly the same paintings for the same length of time, but mixed up in a random sequence. At the end, students in each group were shown paintings they had not seen before and asked to name the artist. Which group did better? It was the ones who saw the paintings in a random order.

This outcome has been reproduced in numerous studies involving discrimination. During the learning phase, students exposed to interleaving don’t feel like they are learning, but actually they improve faster.


“That may be the most astounding thing about this technique,” said John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University, who has shown that interleaving accelerates our ability to distinguish between bird species. “People don’t believe it, even after you show them they’ve done better.”
This much is clear: The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition. (p. 164)

Athletic coaches long ago figured out that exercising a particular muscle too much at a time is not productive, so they mix up training, switching between different muscle groups. The studies of learning artistic styles show that mixing things up is a more general learning strategy, with applications in many areas.

Other factors

Carey also discuses other factors that enable faster and longer-lasting learning. These include perceptual learning, which happens without having to think about it, and the role of different sleep cycles in consolidating learning.

Sleep helps to form memories.

It is fascinating that there are ways to speed up learning in a wide range of contexts, for example pilots comprehending the implications of different instrument panels or language students learning Mandarin.

It is tempting to think that it would be possible to take advantage of several of the techniques described by Carey and quickly become a much more efficient learner. If you are in the hands of one of the researchers or skilled practitioners using one of the techniques, such as interleaving or perceptual learning, then you have an advantage. But to take the initiative to adopt these techniques on your own is another matter.

One of the key considerations is habit — and many people’s learning habits are deeply entrenched. It can be quite challenging to replace one habit with another, though there is good research on how to do this.

To better understand the challenges of adopting some of the techniques presented by Carey, here I’ll discuss how they relate to the high-output writing programme I’ve been using for several years.


Robert Boice, a psychologist and educational researcher, addressed the problem of low research productivity. Many of his important studies date from the 1980s.

Robert Boice

He observed newly appointed academics and noticed that most of them struggled in the demands of the job, but a few were highly productive in research and furthermore were less stressed than their colleagues. Boice thought the techniques used by these productive new academics might be taught to others, and he showed how this could be done.

Advice for new faculty members

Boice’s approach was elaborated by Tara Gray and turned into a twelve-step programme. The core of the approach is doing some writing every day or nearly every day, but not too much. Boice advocated stopping while still fresh, in order to have energy and enthusiasm to continue the next day. A central theme in Boice’s approach is moderation, to overcome the syndrome of procrastination and bingeing.

Gray says to start writing from the very beginning of a research project. For example, in doing a PhD, you should start writing the first day, rather than spending a couple of years first reading and collecting data. The slogan here is “write before you’re ready.”


How does the Boice-Gray approach to writing measure up in relation to the techniques described by Carey that enhance learning? First is the spacing effect: it’s more productive to space out learning sessions. That is actually the foundation of the writing programme: it is designed to overcome the usual approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Second is the testing effect: it is productive to use testing as a form of studying. In the writing programme, daily writing is done without looking at texts or stopping to look up references. You might have a few dot-point notes, but otherwise everything has to come from your head. In effect, it is a type of testing of your memory of what you want to say. For example, if you’ve read some articles the previous day, you write about them without consulting them: it’s a test, and a powerful learning tool.

Third is incubation. This is central to the writing programme. In between writing sessions, the unconscious mind is going over what to say next. In one of Boice’s studies, he looked at the number of creative ideas produced by academics in three conditions: no writing, normal writing (bingeing) and daily writing. No writing was worst for generating new ideas, normal writing was twice as good and daily writing was five times as good. The writing programme might be seen as turning the incubation process into a routine.

Another facet of incubation is that you learn more when you interrupt your study before finishing. This happens every day in the Boice-Gray programme, and can be enhanced by a simple technique. At the end of your daily writing session, finish in the middle of developing an idea, perhaps even in the middle of a paragraph or sentence. This incomplete expression of an idea serves to stimulate thinking, and often by the next day your unconscious mind has come up with a way to complete the thought.

Tara Gray

Fourth is interleaving: learning about a range of different topics at the same session. This is not usually part of the writing programme, but could be incorporated into it. Usually I write about the same topic from one day to the next, gradually writing the draft of an article or chapter. But sometimes I feel a bit stuck and switch to a different project and topic, coming back to the other one when I feel ready, which can be days, weeks or months later. No doubt interleaving can be used in other ways to improve writing productivity.

Fifth is mixing up learning contexts: you can consolidate your learning by studying in different surroundings and times of the day. The idea is to embed your learning in different environments. This is different from what’s usually recommended in the writing programme, which is to have a routine and stick with it. I think this difference points to an important factor not addressed by Carey: how to motivate continued effort at learning.

The practice of doing just a small amount of daily writing is designed to reduce the barriers to beginning a session. To add pressure, Boice asked academics to report to him weekly with a log of the minutes they had written each day and the number of words they had produced each day. This accountability process made a huge difference. Daily writing combined with reporting a weekly log to Boice improved productivity by a factor of nine compared to the usual procrastination-bingeing approach.

The technique of varying the learning contexts is worthwhile if your writing habit is well established. But few writers seem to have such a solid habit. Writing while travelling would seem like an ideal opportunity to vary contexts, but Gray reports that when travelling, away from the usual routine, writing at all is a challenge for her, and many others have told me the same.



The message here is that the techniques described by Carey are highly worthwhile and should be investigated by anyone for whom learning is important. However, a key consideration is how to turn a new learning approach into a habit. If you can do this, you’ve truly learned something worthwhile.

Benedict Carey

Meanwhile, generations of students are carrying on in their usual approach, and so does most teaching. There is important research being done on learning, and Carey has pointed to some of the most practical findings. When these will affect schools and training programmes is another matter. Not soon, I suspect. So read How We Learn, pick one or two techniques relevant to your needs, and become a more efficient learner – and enjoy it too!

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments.

Vaccination passions


Vaccination seems to arouse stronger emotions than most other controversial issues. Jonathan Haidt’s research on the foundations of morality can help explain why.

When I started studying the Australian vaccination controversy several years ago, I was struck by the incredible passions aroused by the issue.

It is not a surprise that campaigners are committed and emotional – that was to be expected. I have studied other controversies, such as nuclear power and fluoridation, in which leading campaigners are personally invested in the issues. In the 1980s, the movement against nuclear war stimulated some fierce emotions: the future of humanity was at stake! (And still is.)

Vaccination is not as earth-shattering as nuclear war, but nonetheless evokes incredibly strong emotions. When acquaintances learn about my studies, many of them have asked me why this is so. I usually say I don’t really know, commenting that maybe it has to do with children’s health.

Both sides in the debate about vaccination put children’s health as their number one priority. They just draw different conclusions.

Supporters of vaccination say it is vital that every child be vaccinated (except for those for whom this is medically unwise) to create “herd immunity”, the protection for the population created when levels of immunity are high enough that an infectious agent cannot easily spread.

Critics of vaccination point to the risks of vaccination itself – it causes adverse reactions in a small percentage of children – and discount the importance of herd immunity, instead citing the importance of good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle and natural immunity acquired by contracting diseases.

There are other potential threats to children’s health, such as pesticides, x-rays, junk food, backyard swimming pools and parental violence. Nuclear war would harm children, to be sure, and continued global warming would be a major threat to the lives of future generations. However, vaccination is more personal: it involves a tangible intervention. Proponents can point to horror stories of deaths and disabilities from whooping cough, meningococcal and other infectious diseases, while critics can point to horror stories of adverse reactions to vaccines.

War – bad for children

The rider and the elephant

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind offers additional insights into why the vaccination issue can be so polarising. Haidt doesn’t address vaccination, nor indeed any other such controversial public issue, but his ideas are relevant. (See also my previous comments about Haidt’s work, as applied to whistleblowing and deliberative democracy.)

Haidt, like many other psychologists, subscribes to the picture of the human mind as having two aspects or components. One is slow, logical, contemplative and careful. This rational component of the mind Haidt calls the “rider”. The other component of the mind is fast, intuitive and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the “elephant”. He argues, provocatively, that humans are largely driven by their elephants, namely the intuitive sides to their minds. The primary function of the rider, namely the rational side of the mind, is to come up with logical-sounding explanations for the judgements made by the elephant.

Elephant and Rider

This certainly fits what I’ve observed in the vaccination debate. Most people have made up their minds, and it doesn’t matter what evidence is provided. They just ignore what is unwelcome and come up with arguments to justify their positions. This helps explain why the debate never seems to progress: the elephants hold sway and the riders are active in justifying the paths chosen by their elephants.

Only rarely do I meet someone who is undecided and who wants to hear both sides of the argument and ponder the issue before making a judgement.

The foundations of morality

Haidt’s special contribution concerns the biological foundations of morality. Citing a wide variety of research and ingenious experiments, he identifies six values that seem fundamental to people’s views of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity.


Haidt is especially interested in how these foundations of morality affect debates over politics and religion in the US. He discovered that libertarians, who oppose government regulations and support a free market, rely mostly on the value of liberty. He says that US liberals (who might be called progressives elsewhere), who support government interventions to assist the poor and disadvantaged, rely especially on the value of care, with liberty and fairness as additional influential values. He finds that US conservatives rely more equally on all six foundations.

This analysis helps explain why US people with different political orientations often seem to be talking past each other. What drives them is different. Their elephants are taking different paths, based on different intuitive moral judgements, and their riders give rational reasons to justify their choices. In this circumstance, rational analysis is, for most people, a sideshow that affects little.

Vaccination and morality

The six foundations of morality have obvious relevance to the vaccination issue. First consider care, something important for both liberals and conservatives. The morality of care derives, in evolutionary terms, from parents caring for their children. Groups of early humans with an innate commitment to protect and care for their own children were more likely to survive. In this sense, care is a fundamental aspect of most people’s sense of right and wrong: it is right to protect children and wrong to allow any harm come to them.


Wanting to protect children is intuitive and doesn’t need to be taught. So it is easy to see why vaccination can arouse such passions: it is about care for children.

But the limitation of Haidt’s analysis, at least when applied to vaccination, is that it doesn’t say how the value of care can come to be applied in different ways. It is straightforward to feed a hungry child or to protect a child from a threatening animal. However, vaccination is not such a simple matter.

Supporters of vaccination see children as the prime beneficiaries. Critics see vaccination as a possible danger. They both appeal to care, but have come to different conclusions about how to achieve it.

Supporters point to the dangers of infectious diseases such as measles and chickenpox. Critics point to the dangers of adverse reactions to vaccines. Pointing to the role of the morality of care helps explain why the passions around vaccination are so strong, but does not explain differences in attitudes towards it.

In part this can be due to personal experience. Some children contract infectious diseases and suffer seriously from them, or even die. Parents, other relatives and friends see this and may be influenced to support vaccination. Other children suffer adverse reactions to vaccines; their parents, other relatives and friends may be influenced to oppose vaccination.

Other aspects of morality are also relevant. Liberty is a value based around personal autonomy and resistance to overbearing rule. In evolutionary terms, according to Haidt, it derives from the value to groups of subordinates ganging up on any individual who assumes too much power. When vaccination is pushed on people, for example through mandatory vaccination of soldiers or health workers or through financial penalties for not vaccinating, this may trigger resistance in those for whom liberty is a key moral foundation.

Authority, as a moral value, means accepting the prevailing systems of hierarchy and leadership. When governments, health departments and doctors support vaccination, this invokes the moral foundation of authority.


Haidt says that conservatives are more likely to have authority as a key moral driver. However, this does not seem to fit the pattern for vaccination policy, given that many of the doctors and researchers promoting vaccination are “liberal” in Haidt’s sense. Still, it makes sense to say that vaccination gains support through the authority response in those for whom this moral foundation is salient.

Another moral foundation is sanctity. Disgust is one emotional response to a violation of the sense of sanctity or purity. Many people feel intuitively that certain practices are disgusting, for example incest or eating food that has fallen on the floor – even when the floor is perfectly clean. If that doesn’t disgust you, consider eating food that has fallen into a just-cleaned toilet. Sanctity, like the other foundations, is driven by the elephant, and people sometimes cannot give a logical justification for their reactions.

Some critics of vaccination may see the body as a sacred object that, when healthy, should not be assaulted by any medical intervention. If so, this can help explain their conscientious objection to vaccination. However, sanctity has declining relevance in societies like the US and Australia, where attitudes to personal behaviour have changed dramatically over recent decades.


To more fully understand how emotional reactions shape people’s views on vaccination would require research. Examining the role of the six foundations for morality elucidated by Jonathan Haidt is a promising basis for investigation. Each of the six foundations – care, liberty, fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity – could play a role. However, the way that each of these values actually maps onto a person’s position on vaccination is not automatic, and may be influenced by personal experiences as well as the views of family and friends. This may be a fruitful area for study precisely because the passions are so great.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments on a draft.

PS I’ve applied moral foundations ideas to several other topics:

Dealing with shaming


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.

Justine Sacco

            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.

Jonah Lehrer

            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.

Brad Blanton

            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.

Crime, shame and reintegration

            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.

Max Mosley
Max Mosley

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.

Jon Ronson

            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.


Brian Martin