Lisa Owen: It's a phenomenon of the digital age.. online-shaming. But what happens after the flurry of outraged tweets and posts sweeps through cyberspace? Award-winning writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson spent three years travelling the world to find out. The result was his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. I caught up with Ronson in Brisbane and asked what prompted his interest in the dark side of social media.
Jon Ronson: I guess in the early days of social media, I was a bit of a shamer like everybody else. You know, I'd tear somebody apart for stepping out of line. And then it wouldn't even cross my mind to wonder whether the people I'd destroyed or helped to destroy were okay or were in ruins. And I thought, you know, 'This isn't necessarily who I want to be,' because I felt that no longer were we shaming people who deserved it; it's no longer were we doing social justice. What we had started doing instead was tabbing into private individuals, who had done almost nothing wrong; just, kind of, made a joke that came out badly on Twitter. And it was like we had lost a capacity for empathy, and also lost our capacity to distinguish between serious and unserious transgressions. So it suddenly felt really important to me that I would go around the world and meet the people that we had destroyed to rehumanise them, I guess.
I do want to ask the 'why' question, then, because people seem to act very differently online than what they would if they spoke to you face to face. So why do you think that is?
Well, I think there's a number of reasons. I think, obviously, the drone strike operator doesn't need to think about the village that he's just blown up, and on the internet, we're like drone strike operators. And also, I think the snowflake doesn't need to feel responsible for the avalanche. So if hundreds of thousands of people are tearing about a single person, we don't need to feel responsible for it. And also, we play this, kind of, psychological tricks on ourselves. We think, 'Okay, that person we just destroyed, I'm sure they're fine now.' Or we think, 'That person we just destroyed, oh, they're probably a sociopath.' So we're constantly coming up with psychological tricks to make ourselves feel not so bad about destroying people.
I want to use and talk about an example from your book – a woman who shamed two IT workers, who- she shamed them on Twitter; they were telling rude jokes at a conference. One of the guys lost their job. And then what happened was Twitter turned on her. And the tweets said things like, 'Cut out her uterus. Kill her. F… the bitch. Make her pay.' And someone even described shooting her in the head, close-range. I mean, these were apparently everyday people, weren't they, saying these things?
Everyday people- I mean, when you get to the heart of, like, why people are shamed on social media, it seems to be always people who are perceived to have misused their privilege. So one of them lost his job, and then she, in shaming them, was perceived to have misused her privilege, like she had publicly shamed these two men to her 12,000 Twitter followers or whatever, so people just, sort of, tore her apart. Even worse, actually, because when you are a woman in a shaming, the range of insults is way worse. You know, when a man is shamed it's, 'I'm going to get you fired.' When a woman shamed it's, 'I'm going to rape you and cut out your uterus,' and so on. But the problem here is the misuse of privilege.
Do people not register the fact that if they send a tweet, say, in the example of Justine Sacco, they're not the only person who's calling her out on Twitter? I mean, this is a woman who told a joke about white people and AIDS, and by the time she gets off her flight, she's trending number one worldwide on Twitter, isn't she? Do people just-? Do they just think, 'I'm the only person shaming her out'? Do they not realise millions of others are also doing that to her?
I think they kind of enjoy that, because, you know, Twitter is like a mutual approval machine, right? You surround yourself with people who feel the same way that you do, and you approve each other. So you tear Justine Sacco down; you're congratulated for doing that, so you tear her down some more. Other people see you doing it, and they see you being congratulated, so they start doing it. You know, tech utopians like Jimmy Wales and Larry Page think that all of this is a new, sort of, democracy. But actually, screaming out voices of dissent and just surrounding yourself with people who feel the same way you do, that's not democracy. What that actually is it's like the opposite of democracy.
But isn't the problem, though, that it's hard to tell where that line is between what's useful and what is nasty? And if we look at the case of Cecil the lion that was hunted and shot by an American dentist there, the bigger picture was that it raised awareness of hunting of endangered animals. But I suppose the other side of that was that a guy, the man who shot that lion, essentially had his professional life and his family life ruined. So how do you tell where the line is?
No one is going to tell us where the line is. And in terms of Cecil the lion, yes, of course, there was a positive side to that. That some privileged dentist will feel probably less excited about going big-game hunting because of what happened to Walter Palmer. On the other hand, Walter Palmer's family suffer, Walter Palmer's employees. Three friends of mine were so outraged that they posted Walter Palmer's home address and telephone number on their Facebook pages. One person I know phoned him up in the middle of the night to scream at him, and then all three of them, the next day, felt kind of weird. Like, 'What had come over us yesterday?' And they all felt like they'd gone too far and it was a little bit weird. Even Mia Farrow, actually, tweeted me to say, 'I posted Walter Palmer's home address and phone number, and now I kind of feel weird about it.'
The thing is with that, then, how big a problem is it when you have these kind of off-the-cuff sins, if you like, that are recorded forever online; you know, you google someone, and it comes up forever and a day, and it's there. Should there be a right to be forgotten?
Before I went on this journey as a journalist, you know, I would've been kneejerk against the right to be forgotten. Now I've met these people who told a joke that came out badly and then read every single tweet telling them that they were a terrible human being and they should get out, then it's people lose their job. And then they get defined. These are people who've led good, ethical lives, yet some bad phraseology in a tweet overwhelms it all and becomes like a clue to their secret inner evil, like that was true. So, you know, I've changed my views on the right to be forgotten, I think, for certainly, unquestionably, for private individuals.
I was just going to say in New Zealand, we've introduced some law recently about cyber-bullying which means that material online has to be taken down – it could be forced to be taken down – if it causes serious emotional distress. You know, and obviously that's about balance between freedom of speech, isn't it, and some people regard it as censorship. But how do you balance that – harm with freedom of speech?
The thing is the people who do the shaming… Like, you ask anybody who shamed, you know, even Walter Palmer, but shamed Justine Sacco and all the people I met, 'How do you think they are now?' The reply would almost always be, 'I'm sure they're fine now.' Because we move on after a day, so we assume that they move on after a day. But the people I find… I mean, a profound shaming like the ones that I'm talking about have a massive impact on people's mental health. I mean, I met a woman who made a joke that came out badly – lovely woman, worked with adults with learning difficulties – she read every single negative tweet and got so depressed and insomniac and anxious, she didn't leave home for a year and a half.
So you as a journalist, Jon, you would support in some way that cyber-bullying law? If it causes emotional harm, you would agree with it having to come down?
Oh. Oh yeah, unquestionably. I think things are spiralling out of control on the internet at the moment. We're like toddlers crawling towards a gun. I would certainly support that. As I say, I'm a journalist. Like any other journalist, I believe in freedom of speech, I believe in the facts out there themselves, but if you've been on the journey that I've been on the last three years meeting people destroyed for nothing by delightful people like us, let alone crazy, misogynistic trolls, yes, your opinion changes.
So then just briefly before we go, how do we make Twitter and the internet a kinder place?
Well, I think conversations like this. I mean, my book came out; Monica Lewinsky came out with a TED talk which I thought was wonderful. Good, important thinkers like Glenn Greenwald are kind of jumping on it too. And I think if— I think the best thing that can happen is if you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming going on, speak up. Say something about it. And it's going to be no question that the shamers will turn on you, and, believe me, I've experienced that over the past few months, but it's the right thing to do. Because a babble of voices talking back and forward about whether something's deserved or not, that's democracy.
Thank you very much for joining us. A pleasure talking to you. Very interesting. Thank you.
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