We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.
It all starts when Ronson notices that someone else is tweeting under his name. Baffled, he tries to get the new account taken down, only to discover that it’s a spambot account set up by a cabal of young academics to make a point about privacy. After unproductive meetings with the perpetrators, Ronson shares the story with his online followers, who rally in his defence. The academics are subject to a volley of criticism and, eventually, the spambot account is deactivated and Ronson triumphs. But his sense of victory is short-lived. He begins to realise that social media has immense power, and that public shaming (which worked so well against the spambot’s creators) can also have very serious consequences for its victims – consequences which are rarely proportionate to the degree of their wrongdoing. Ronson confronts the key problem:
With social media we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high dramas. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
We all enjoy schadenfreude: the higher someone has risen, the more satisfying I suppose it can be to watch them fall. And that’s true of Ronson’s first interviewee, the pop-psychologist Jonah Lerner. Unlike some of the other people in the book, Lerner did actually engage in prolonged wrongdoing, albeit of a minor form (plagiarism and outright invention of quotes he used in his books). When this was revealed by the journalist Michael Moynihan, Lerner found his reputation under fire and, in the course of the next few weeks, everything he had built up began to collapse around him. Ronson pursues him, tracing the psychological cost of these attacks and Lerner’s efforts to salvage what he could (not always successfully). It’s hard to feel all that much sympathy for Lerner, it’s true, but it’s sobering to see exactly how much damage online shaming can do – not just in the moment, while we the mob get our anger off our chests, but for a long time thereafter. But we don’t think about that. The disconnection we get from being on the internet, from not being able to see the person we’re shaming, means that we don’t take responsibility for our actions: ‘nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be,’ Ronson notes. ‘The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.’
What’s striking is that most of the other ‘shamed’ interviewees really hadn’t done much to deserve it. Their actions or comments were largely taken out of context, such as those of tech developer Hank, whose life collapses after a woman accuses him of making disrespectful comments at a conference (he didn’t); or Justine Sacco, who made a very stupid joke just before she got on a plane to South Africa, mocking white Americans’ attitude to the wider world. Her comment was taken out of context, spread across the Internet with the speed and fury of a forest fire and, before she’d even landed, she had been labelled a gross rapist and been sacked from her job. Thousands of people were avidly watching Twitter, waiting for her to land and realise what she’d done.
Lindsey Stone posted an equally stupid photo on a Facebook page which should have been private, showing her mocking a ‘silence and respect’ sign at a veterans’ cemetery. When it went public, all hell broke lose and all her hopes of a future career have been dashed by the loathing which surfaces with every Google search of her name. (Although Ronson discovers that, with enough money, you can control what Google shows at the top of its search results: a method which may help Lindsey.) Now, this is not legitimate shaming. This is cruel glorification in others’ misfortunes. Ronson points out that public shaming was a key feature of life in Mao’s China and Nazi Germany, because ‘it destroys souls, brutalizing everyone, the onlookers included, dehumanizing them as much as the person who was being shamed‘. Is that really what we want to emulate?
When he begins publicising this book, Ronson finds himself the target of online shaming. In trying to explain the actions of his interviewees, he’s accused of condoning their crimes and he finds himself cast as a racist for daring to question the most extreme of the shaming levelled against Sacco, and trying to diffuse the hatred. He realises, with alarm, that people aren’t interested in being diffused. They like the taste of blood. They’re not in it for subtle discussion. They’re in it for the thrill of banding together, lighting the torches and surging up to the castle to kill the beast or the monster or the squire or whoever’s upset them this time. Social media seems to have concentrated our natural instincts and made us ever less open to dialogue, compassion and nuance. Ronson remembers that Twitter was a rather cuddly place when it first began, but that nowadays it can turn into a gladiatorial arena with little warning:
Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact it felt weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about.
I’ve just been struck by terrifying flashbacks to the Two Minutes Hate in 1984. Good God, Orwell knew his stuff. But where does this fury come from? Ronson makes a digression to talk about theories behind group madness. He cites Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (another fond memory from A-level Psychology) and looks into its findings, enough to wonder whether they’re really as clear-cut as they seem. But he also goes back to the founder of mob theory, the Frenchman Gustave Le Bon. Now, some of what Le Bon says about crowd mentality seems very sensible and plausible, if not alarmingly timely. Consider his assessment of how to win over the mob: ‘A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.’ I will say only two words. Brexit. Trump. But Le Bon himself seems to have been absolutely ghastly. He believed that ‘aristocrats and businessmen had bigger brains than everybody else‘ (he was a social climber) and his thoughts on women deserve to be quoted directly:
Among the Parisians there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thoughts and logic, and incapacity to reason.
If I were Dante, I would create a special circle in the Inferno where Gustave Le Bon could be relentlessly bastinadoed by a rotating selection of suffragettes, female Nobel prizewinners and very angry feminists.
However you explain it, though, it’s clear that modern society is increasingly eager to find missteps, mistakes and offence, and to blow them up as shameful examples to the world at large. It’s a rather dismal thought. Ronson hints that this is all tied up with a culture in which trigger warnings, no-platforming and accusations of abuse of privilege curtail the conversations that can be had, and the freedom with which we have them. If you express any views on social media, you either have to neuter them so as not to cause any offence, even to those looking to be offended, or you have to be strong enough to stand up to the abuse that follows (for women, customarily including rape threats). What kind of world is this that we’ve made for ourselves?
Ronson’s book is, in one sense, a plea for greater rationality; but I don’t know whether we’ve jumped the shark in that respect. He worries that ‘We’re creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland’ and wonders how we can confront and challenge the trend towards gratuitous public shaming. It feels like a very necessary book and, as always, Ronson writes with a light touch and a great eye for a story. He holds up a mirror to the true face of what the internet has become, and sounds a clarion call to change; but do people want to change? Let’s hope we manage to control our own self-destructive instincts before we end up creating Two Minute Hates of our own…