So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson – author of The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats – feels like it should be required reading for anyone who uses social media. Humorous and unsettling, this book digs into the 21st century trend of online shaming:
For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.
A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Trial by Social Media
This book delves into some pretty well-known public shamings, including the case of Justine Sacco, the American woman who posted a insensitive tweet about the AIDs crisis in Africa. Sound familiar? She posted the tweet to her 170-odd followers, boarded a long-haul flight and then disembarked to find herself the target of a mass public shaming on Twitter. People were tracking her flight, waiting for her to land.
Ronson interviews people like Sacco, and follows the aftermath and psychological impact of their experiences with online public shaming. He also interrogates the role that everyday users of social media play in dispensing this “justice”, forcing us to consider the troubling reality that ‘we’, collectively, now form part of a social media mob, ready to mobilise around any target for any – perceived or real – infringement.
This isn’t to say that everyone who is a victim of a public shaming is always a morally fantastic and completely innocent person. At no point is Ronson supporting Sacco’s tweet. But what the book forces readers to do is to contemplate our own culpability in overly-aggressive, often knee-jerk social shamings and the impact this has not only on the individual’s who are shamed, but also, more broadly, on public discourse and democracy online.
Social media and Google algorithms make profit from increasing traffic and engagement. Public shamings are amplified by this model and social media’s constant need to capture and hold our attention. It’s a vicious cycle. Social media creates ‘a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain.’ (p.296). This is a false reality. Most people are often somewhere in-between: morally ambiguous, sometimes good, sometimes bad, typically well-intentioned. This reality doesn’t make for the same high-stakes, attention-grabbing drama that social media culture thrives on.
It’s our job, as responsible users of the internet and social media platforms, to critically engage and think about what we post – and who we publicly shame and attack – online. Who is this person? What has really happened? Who benefits from me joining this public shaming?