Jon Ronson has written a fascinating book that may scare you off the internet. It’s about the cliques (perhaps they should be called gangs) on social media, and how each becomes an “echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing… ‘It locks people off… trapped in a system of feedback reinforcement.'”
The topic is timely. I’ve read, for example: It’s “almost as if the Web had been calibrated from the very beginning to allow a bigoted harassment campaign to flourish,” from Slate.com; and that abusive behavior on Twitter is causing people to abandon it and could even kill the company.
Ronson examines the plight of several individuals who posted something that made them the target of attacks – “public shamings” that ruined their lives, at least for a while. The attackers claim to be punishing racism or other anti-social behavior, but I think the internet term that applies is “troll.”
When shaming is good
Ronson set out to “chronicle how efficient [social media] was in righting wrongs.” There were “recent social media shaming I’d enjoyed and felt proud of.”
- Following an anti-gay item published by The Guardian, the “collective fury” of people on Twitter led to companies pulling their advertising from the paper,
- When the Daily Mail mocked a food bank, Twitter users led a campaign for donations to the charity,
- LA Fitness refused to cancel the gym membership of a couple who lost their jobs until a blizzard of tweets shamed them into agreeing.
“These giants were being brought down by people who used to be powerless [by] the weapon: online shaming.”
Ronson includes a personal example where someone hijacked his Twitter account and created a “disastrously misrepresentative depiction of my views… left me feeling powerless and sullied.” The perpetrator was shamed into stopping via comments on a You Tube interview. This was a rare case where Ronson was able to find and confront his tormentor.
Heroes and villains become less clear as the book progresses. A freelance journalist discovers that a New York Times Best-Selling author (Jonah Lehrer) fabricated some quotations in his latest non-fiction book. The theme of power returns when the author’s agent tries to stop the journalist from publishing his findings. He’s “the most powerful literary agent in the United States,” says the journalist, “and I’m a schlub.”
Ronson delivers this tale in detail, including the “terror” and “panic” the author felt as his fraud was revealed.
Subsequent investigation found more fabrication and plagiarism by the author – including the interesting concept of “self-plagiarism” when old work is sold as new. If an author commits fraud, losing his publishing and speaking contracts seems appropriate. But the story leads to a question of how punishment should fit the crime.
When the shamed author was invited (and paid) to speak at the Knight Foundation (for journalism), he intended to apologize publicly. The speech was streamed live before “a giant screen behind his head that displayed a live Twitter feed. Anyone watching… could tweet their ongoing opinion… would automatically appear, in real time and in gigantic letters, right next to [his] face.”
Comments disbelieving his sincerity appeared, then insults: “friggin’ sociopath,” “self-deluded asshole,” “moral defective.” Ronson questioned the “terrible strangeness” of the event. It’s an interesting story, but it seems too long, and Ronson works too hard to generate sympathy for the individuals involved. (I see Lehrer has co-authored a book on – ironically – improving online behavior. Its copyright is 2015 so I guess he’s recovering.)
When shaming is a shame
Victims of subsequent stories seem more sympathetic. For example:
- A woman tweeted a poorly conceived joke about AIDS in Africa, which was passed on and seen over a million times in one day. She was condemned as racist with threats of violence – the scariest part of social media shaming. Her employer also came under attack and she was fired from her job.
- A man in the audience at a technical conference made a silly joke about “large dongles” to his friend. A nearby woman posted his picture with a complaint that he was misogynous. The internet kerfuffle led to the man being fired from his job; and then attacks from anti-feminists begin against the woman. Her employer’s website was repeatedly crashed and she was fired.
- In many of these cases, the victim tries to apologize but the attacks continue.
- Anyone who posts a contradictory comment in the thread is likely to be attacked in turn.
There are other interesting tidbits.
- There are companies that restore online reputation – negative items can be buried by lots of blandly pleasant posts.
- Starting in the late 1700s, physical punishments were removed from the public square over alarm at the exuberant reaction of crowds. Also, after “the taunt and sneer of public disgrace… no criminal can ever return to honorable courses.”
- The advice I read says to ignore trolls, but one person fought them off. An actor caught lying about the supposedly true-story behind his stage play “published an apologetic statement on his webpage [and]… berated and scolded his attackers and called them hypocrites.” Attacks “drifted away, until it all just stopped.”
- Internet companies make “money when anything happens online.” Shaming the bad-joke woman generated $120,000 for Google.
Ronson concludes “I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people… I miss the fun a little.”
What’s said onAmazon
From 264 reviews, Ronson earns 84% 4 or 5 stars. Those who liked the book less said he includes too many side stories and too much trivia; that the information is too disjointed with no cohesive conclusion; or that there is no pertinent advice on what to do if you’re a victim. I have to agree with these points, though they didn’t bother me so much.