Before I started working at the IAPP, I was always fascinated by online shaming. You know the drill by now. An individual does something either really stupid, offensive, underhanded, or all of the above, and the internet erupts in a sea of outrage.
Eventually, the person’s name and place of employment becomes public. Their name trends on Twitter. Countless people flood the Facebook page of their employer, and eventually they get fired.
While scrolling through a comment section on some random website one day, I saw a person recommend Jon Ronson’s book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” I immediately Googled it, and after reading the quick description, bought it on Amazon.
Ronson’s book asks two important questions: What happens to a person after they experience online shaming? And why does the internet rush to partake in the process of tearing a person down?
Ronson is deftly able to deliver on the first question, while the second is not quite as clear.
The book chronicles Ronson as he seeks out famous internet shamees to see where their lives stand following their online destruction. He speaks to people such as Justine Sacco, who's name went viral after sending a tweet many believed was racist regarding a trip to Africa, and Lindsey Stone, who was the target of outrage after taking a photo at Arlington National Cemetery mocking a “Silence and respect” sign.
Sacco, Stone and others in the book discuss the struggles they faced following their unfortunate 15 minutes of fame.
Shamees often lost their jobs, saw their personal lives evaporate, and oftentimes stopped leaving their homes altogether. Ronson argues their offenses never matched the level of outrage directed toward them, and he does a wonderful job presenting these people as three-dimensional characters who have had any semblance of privacy torn away for what he sees as misdemeanors.
While the online mob moves onto their next target, its “victims” are often left on long roads to recovery in order to regain any feelings of control over their identity.
One of the most noteworthy scenes in the book comes at the expense of an individual who actually committed one of the more serious transgressions documented.
Jonah Lehrer was an acclaimed author who was discovered to have committed several acts of plagiarism throughout his career. Ronson follows Lehrer as he prepares to deliver a public apology at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Lehrer is prepared to deliver the speech, when Ronson drops the most crucial detail. The foundation set up a live Twitter feed behind the author, meaning he could see reactions to the speech in real time.
The speech is an unmitigated disaster, and Ronson excellently captures the hell Lehrer faces on stage as he sees his reputation immolate in front of his eyes. The section is absolutely agonizing. Ronson picks out several of the tweets from the deluge, and you can’t help but wonder what was going through the disgraced author's mind when he reads tweets such as:
The only way @JonahLehrer can redeem himself from his failures is by doing completely different work. He is tainted as a writer forever.
— El Oso Mysterioso (@mattgriffin) February 12, 2013
Jonah Lehrer is a friggin' sociopath http://t.co/RYBUfr9z
— Michael Noer (@michaelnoer) February 12, 2013
Done with this Lehrer mea culpa. As a former fact-checker, I have zero inclination to forgive or read his future work.
— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) February 12, 2013
Expect a pit to grow in your stomach as Ronson explains how Lehrer continued to grind through the speech as the insults grew more vicious. Some Twitter users, however, felt pity for Lehrer’s public shaming, likening it to a “21st century town square flogging.”
Later, chronicling his time with Stone, Ronson discovered the work of Bryce Tom, a man who created Metal Rabbit Media. Tom’s company is in “black-ops reputation management,” creating fake websites to help promote positive stories of clients who may have unsavory online reputations.
Ronson notes how Tom’s company proliferated two years before the EU's “right-to-be-forgotten” came into existence.
Another reputation-management serviced, headed by Michael Fertik, was hired to help create a better online profile for Stone as she works to keep her infamous moment hidden from employers. One of the few feel good moments of the book comes from Fertik successfully managing to push Stone's photo, the one that got her in trouble, down in order on "Google images" search results and the relief Stone expresses when it happens.
The book isn’t perfect.
Too often, Ronson inserts his own persona into the story, and while his assertions are relevant to the story, they come off a little self-serving, and not nearly as interesting. (He references another one of his novels, “The Psychopath Test,” several times throughout the book.)
As for why online shaming occurs at all, Ronson doesn’t come to a finite conclusion. Perhaps it’s the internet’s twisted way of doing the right thing, or a rush for everyone to showcase their upstanding moral character by tearing down those who stand against traditional “good” values.
I was left wanting to hear even more from those who have been torn down, and how they rose back up. But with social media still such a driving force in today’s method of communication, Ronson may just be able to write a full-fledged follow up.
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