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Jon Ronson on social media witch hunts: "We're the merciless ones!"

The author of "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" talks about social media privilege and the carnage of online shaming


Laura Miller
March 29, 2015 4:00AM (UTC)

Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” is a departure of sorts for the bestselling humorist/journalist. Instead of interviewing paranoid extremists (“Them”) or bizarre military researchers (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) or convicted murderers (“The Psychopath Test”), he had heart-to-hearts with a publicist, a science journalist, a software developer and a caregiver for adults with learning difficulties. What drew Ronson to this collection of fairly ordinary people is an ordeal they all shared: public shaming in the age of social media.

Justine Sacco, the publicist, tweeted a lame joke meant to parody racist attitudes toward AIDS, then boarded a flight to South Africa while Twitter erupted with calls for her head on a platter and gleeful jibes about the nightmare that would greet her when her plane landed. Jonah Lehrer, the journalist, got busted for plagiarism and fabrication and then somehow ended up apologizing at a podium while tweets accusing him of being a “sociopath” and a “delusional, unrepentant narcissist” scrolled up a giant screen behind him. Hank, the developer, made stupid double entendres about dongles with a buddy while sitting in the audience at a tech conference, offending another programmer, Adria Richards, and setting off a string of events that would end with both fired and Richards subjected to horrendous online harassment. Perhaps most poignant of all, Lindsey Stone, the caregiver, who had a running joke with a friend in which they photographed themselves next to signs doing the opposite of what the sign demanded (e.g., smoking by a No Smoking sign) snapped a shot of herself pretending to shout and giving the finger in front of a sign reading: “Silence and Respect: Arlington National Cemetery.” Then she posted it to Facebook.

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All four, and a handful of others whose fates Ronson describes in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” had their lives wrecked when hoards of digitally empowered crusaders descended on them. All lost their jobs. All went through periods of depression and withdrawal. “It’s not like I can date,” Sacco told Ronson, “because we google everyone we might date.” Some, like Lehrer, were more culpable than others, but their stories left Ronson with nagging doubts about the tools he’d once idealized as a means by which “giants were being brought down by people who used to be powerless.” He decided to investigate what he calls “the great renaissance in public shaming.” And he was frightened, badly, by what he found.

This book really needed to be written.

Thank you! It sounds so schmaltzy me saying this, but some psychiatrists interviewed me this morning from the Psychiatric Times, and they said, “We think your book is going to heal a lot of people, help a lot of people to heal.” I almost burst into tears, can you think of a lovelier compliment than that?

I was so happy that you were able to help Lindsey Stone, whose name I hesitate to even mention.

Lindsey is quite happy to be part of the conversation. Being talked about in the way that I’ve been talking about her is actually better than having it all vanish. There are few things more traumatizing than being cast out into the wilderness by the masses, and there’s nothing better than being brought back in. So Lindsey — and Justine [Sacco], too — doesn’t really mind being discussed now that people are discussing them in this new way.

Was it Justine’s case that pulled you into the story of social-media shaming?

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I was already in the midst of this when I came across her, but when I did, I just thought, “This is unbelievable.” There’s huge numbers of people willfully misunderstanding this woman for their own ideological ends and those people who were doing it: they’re us. I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us. That’s not a world that you want to live in.

I was very struck by how one of your previous books is called “Them.” But this book could easily be called “Us.”

I even considered calling it “Us,” but then I was worried that people might think it was “U.S.” But you’re right, I absolutely saw it that way. That we have become the powerful, crazy, cruel people.

Is this the most implicated you’ve felt by any of the stories that you’ve worked on? Because you’ve spent much of your career writing about people who are not much like you, or strange people, even if you do try to find some commonality with them.

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Yes. It’s not a coincidence that this affected me emotionally in a way that my other books didn’t. I was thinking about this the other day, actually, remembering interviewing Rachel Weaver for “Them,” a woman whose mother had been shot by the FBI at Ruby Ridge. I felt desperately sorry for Rachel when I was with her and I really wanted to tell her story the way that she wanted it to be told, but when I left I just carried on happily with my day. I remember my doctor saying to me, “God it must affect you, being with all of these people.” And I was like, “No.” For me, going to Montana and meeting those people is a privilege and it’s fun. And of course it was a challenge to write it well. With this book, however, I got anxious, I got depressed. I had to ask the doctor for Xanax.

I suppose I can say that’s positive because readers tell me they feel the anxiety. It makes readers panicky and scared in a positive way, in a way that makes it a good, page-turning book. But also in a way that does a service. You can feel what it was like to be Justine. I think I wouldn’t have managed that if I hadn’t myself felt so anxious, but it was not a happy experience writing this book.

Some version of what happened to Justine really can happen to anyone, clearly, because how many followers did she have beforehand?

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She had 170. And when the New York Times was fact-checking the excerpt they ran, she told them that no one had ever replied to any of her tweets, either.

She thought she was just sending this stuff off into the void.

Exactly, which is why I don’t buy the slightly cold argument of “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” and when you broadcast on Twitter you should expect these things to happen. Justine had no reason to suspect that.

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We should make a distinction. Some of the people you write about in this book have done things that are definitely wrong, like Jonah Lehrer. But a lot of them have just made stupid jokes. As a humorist of sorts, do you find this phenomenon especially terrifying?

Yes. In the book, I remember a time I made a similar joke about whiteness to the one Justine made. I was Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter” [playing Russian roulette]. Thank god the gun didn’t go off that time! What startled me most about Justine — well, so much about Justine’s story was startling, like the fact that she was oblivious to [the unfolding social media catastrophe while her plane flew to South Africa] and that made people happier. That was terrible. But it was this mass, willful misunderstanding.

I feel worried telling you what I’m about to tell you, but I will tell it. I gave this talk in Norwich the other day, in England. During the Q&A, I told the Justine Sacco story. I knew it was going to be a weird Q&A, because the first question was, “As a Jew, you should really think hard about Netanyahu.” Then later on, somebody asked, “Are you a racist?” I said, “For 30 years I’ve been writing about powerful, crazy, cruel people. When the powerful, crazy, cruel people are over there, everyone loves me. When it’s the pharmaceutical industry or this weird military unit, everyone loves it. The first time I say the powerful, crazy, cruel people are now us, somebody asks, ‘Are you a racist?’”

Well, Norwich is a college town! Are you worried you’ll get more of that?

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I think that if Justine’s intent was to be racist, I wouldn’t have put her in the book. That person, by asking that, was referring to my defense of Justine. I know that I explain myself well in the book, so I’m not nervous.

Jokes are dangerous on Twitter, because you can’t be sure everyone will get it.

I think some people really didn’t get Justine. It was to an extent her own fault, because that wasn’t a good joke. But there must have been, amongst the people who ripped her apart, people who understood what she was trying to do but decided to ignore it.

Tons of them, I have no doubt. You know that Sam Biddle [of Gawker] did.

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He must have.

Did you see that he did an apologetic interview with her a few months ago? When I heard about your book, I did wonder if he was trying to get ahead of the story, knowing that he would not come out well as an instigator of the crusade against her. But it’s also true that he became the target of a similar sort of campaign when he made a joke about Gamer Gate.

He certainly did know my book was going to come out, I don’t know whether that was his reason for doing it, but he did kind of apologize to her.

It was still great that he did that. When you interviewed him, his position was, “Everyone will just forget about this.”

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“I’m sure she’s fine.” In the space of one email, he said that leading the campaign against her felt “delicious,” and then, “I’m sure she’s fine.” In a way, that’s all of us. It’s like, we want to destroy somebody and we don’t want to feel bad about it.

Opportunism is a factor. I’m sure that some people didn’t understand Justine’s joke, and I’m sure some people didn’t understand Lindsey’s photograph. And then other people understood what she was doing but hated her anyway.

Then you have to ask them why. And I think there’s a few reasons. I think a lot of people really wanted to show people that they were empathetic. And so in their desperate desire to show they’re empathetic, they did this incredibly un-empathetic thing.

You’re so much more charitable than I am.

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Really?

Look, when you’re talking about Justine Sacco, that happened mostly in the world of media Twitter, right?

Yes

Well, I’d say that fully 65 percent of media Twitter is a subtweet of “How come you have that gig instead of me?” One of the most ominous moments in your book is the part where you ask your Twitter followers, “Has Twitter become a kangaroo court?” And someone tweets back, “Twitter can’t impose real sentences. Just commentary. And unlike you, Jon, we aren’t paid for it.” To me, that’s your real Russian roulette moment, the one that shows how close you are to taking a bullet. Being paid for it makes you a target. The whole rationale behind assuming impunity in attacking people is that “they” have some unjust advantage and “we” don’t.

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You’re absolutely right. A misuse of privilege is the most shame-worthy thing these days. Of course, attacking people who are powerful is a better thing than attacking somebody involved in a consensual sex scandal or something like that. But social media, en masse: We are more powerful than Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer, or Justine Sacco’s employers. Even if Justine Sacco’s employers thought that what Justine did was silly, and they understood the nuance and that it was a mistake but they really liked her because she was a good employee, they still had to fire her. Because social media said so. So we are trying to attack the powerful, misunderstanding the fact that we’re the powerful ones now.

Your friend said it best: The snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche. But even that stuff often seems like a rationale. Sure, the idea that someone has an advantage that we don’t have is really irksome and makes us want to target them, but I also think that people pull the trigger first and come up with reasons later. It’s rooted in the feeling that everybody is more powerful than we are, and therefore we have no ability to hurt them and that makes them fair game. It could be, “This person gets paid to write” or “This person is rich” or “This is a PR person who lives in New York.”

“And goes to bars and parties and is blond.”

Yes, and in the case of Lindsey Stone, “This is some feminist who’s running around making fun of the military.” We turn them into fantasy boogeymen who represent everyone who’s every wronged us.

With Hank and Adria, her feeling was, “This guy is representative of the male-dominated tech world and he’s got so many more opportunities than I do.” And then the people outraged over Adria’s ability to get Hank fired think, “This is feminism out of control.” You’re right. Everybody thinks they’re “punching up,” and there’s just carnage.

Even though structural inequality exists, there’s a lot of what you could call the anxiety of meritocracy. You feel powerless or you feel like an underdog. You feel like everybody has something you don’t. But alongside that, there’s also this persistent notion that people can now get what they deserve. So everybody who has something more than you, even if it’s just a little bit, is insulting you, saying you’re not worthy, just by virtue of having it. It becomes an act of self-defense to point out that whatever they have, they got unjustly, which makes them a terrible person who deserves to be pilloried.

Yeah! Why have we created this Staasi-like system for ourselves? And the more entrenched it becomes, of course, the more likely it is that we’ll all eventually fall victim to it, including the people who created it.

That’s what happened to Sam Biddle. There was an awful poetic justice for him. He wasn’t accused of being racist but he was accused of approving of bullying. He didn’t lose his job, unlike Justine, but his employer lost ads and his editor was forced to apologize publicly. It was humiliating, and undeserved.

Because I am charitable, I have to think that people just aren’t thinking it through. People have created this horrible system that could affect us all. When I was in England, at one of my signing queues, this woman came up to me, a child therapist, who said every damaged child who comes to her now comes to her because of something that happened on social media.

Oh my god!

So it’s affecting a whole generation. I just have to think people aren’t thinking it through and maybe with my book, and with people like Monica Lewinsky, too, who did really well this week, hopefully a whole rush of things will happen to change this. Maybe I’m being incredibly naive.

It will have to be a cumulative thing. We see it happening to others, notice that it happens whether the person is really guilty or not, and start to recognize it as an opportunistic thing. People see a chance to jump on somebody and they go for it. Sometimes it’s just a way that they can attract attention and approval.

Or sometimes it’s just a fun Friday night. I found, subsequent to the book, these new tweets about Justine Sacco, which I’m gutted that I didn’t find when I was writing the book. But I use them in my slideshow now. I found these two so chilling. One was, “#hasjustinelandedyet is the best thing that’s ever happened to my Friday night.” And another one said, “I’m dying to go home but everybody at this bar is so into #hasjustinelandedyet. Can’t leave til it’s over.” So it just became entertainment for people.

You put it very well when you wrote that we have cast ourselves in the role of the ribald onlookers in an old etching of a public execution.

But nobody wants to see themselves like that! They’ve tried to see themselves as Rosa Parks, but they’re not.

There’s a history of people not understanding irony or satire and there’s a history of people using speech policing or ideological policing as a way to get one-up on other people. There was a lot of that in the early 1990s. It did fade away, so it’s always possible that this iteration will just burn itself out. But in the meantime, as you noted in the coda to your book, most people just shut up and try not to say anything about anything that could possibly be misinterpreted. Which is not great if you want an open discussion of difficult issues.

It has to burn itself out, it has to, because it’s so damaging and so wrong. I do think that people are going to continue to be less affected by it. I interviewed one guy, who I didn’t put in the book, kind of similar to Jonah Lehrer, similar kind of transgression. And he said that even people he really doesn’t like, like some terrible, right-wing, Daily Mail columnist, he just couldn’t ever pile on somebody anymore after what happened to him. So I do think that the more people who are shamed or their children are shamed, the more it will go away.

Did you struggle, in writing the book, to make a distinction between people who basically just made a bad joke and the ones like Jonah Lehrer who committed real transgressions?

Jonah Lehrer’s transgression is definitely worse. I still hope, though, that when he finally gets another book out — and assuming it’s completely aboveboard in every way — I hope people like it and it does well. I just want a world where people get another chance.

You are charitable!

Do you feel differently about Jonah? I know he’s a difficult case, obviously.

My feeling is that if you have problems with scrupulously telling the truth, then journalism might not be the career for you. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do other worthwhile things. I think it just depends on what you think of as the worst sort of transgression. Maybe he shouldn’t be hired as a journalist, but I don’t think that he’s subhuman or a sociopath, for crying out loud. Whereas, if someone is deliberately cruel, I hold that against them far more.

One of the tweets about Justine said, "Somebody HIV-positive should rape this bitch and then we'll see if her skin color protects her from AIDS." That person wasn't publicly shamed, they got away with it scot-free! I guess everyone was so excited about destroying Justine, and we could only destroy one person that night.

In the primitive morality that seems to prevail on Twitter, the idea that the “bad guy” of the current scenario could also be wronged ... That really does not compute.

I've got to say, going back to Jonah, I agonized for a very long time about what I should say about him. One day it just hit me: I don't have to exonerate him. I can portray him as a human being and try to make people feel the agony he felt in that moment of being found out, but none of that means I have to excuse what he did. It seems like the simplest realization in the world but it took me months to get there.

So many people will not even be able to get there. They'll just think if you're not condemning him up one side and down the other then you must be condoning everything he did.

The same is true with Hank and Adria as well. Somebody interviewing me the other day said, you are more sympathetic to Hank than to Adria. I don't need to be either Team Hank or Team Adria. This is a human story about human beings! It's ridiculous to have to see stories in that way.

I wouldn’t blame you for this, but I do think that because he is forgiving and she is not, she does come across as more of a problem than he does.

I certainly consider human beings to be more important than ideology, and I think that those of us who feel that way could draw that conclusion.

Certain kinds of identity issues … Her thing with him is that whatever his worth or value as an individual human being, his identity trumps it. Because of who he is, she doesn't have to have any sympathy with him at all.

I was really surprised by something a person who interviewed me the other day said. She's a feminist, and she said that within her circle, people who know about the Hank and Adria story tended to side with Adria and not to question the fact that Hank got what he deserved. That was the prevailing norm among a big swath of women who write about feminist issues. That totally surprised me.

It doesn't surprise me. I don't think Hank and his friend were doing anything misogynistic. They were being pretty vague, not making jokes about women or anything like that. But I can see how to someone like her, for whom every day brings some kind of slight, that was just the straw that broke the camel's back. In this case, Hank and his friend were the snowflakes. Outsiders might say, “Wait a minute! How can we possibly condemn this person; it's just two guys doing a Beavis and Butt-Head routine!” and she's like, “No, you don't understand.”

“This happens to me every day.” I totally see her perspective on that, which is why writing a polemic would absolutely do the story a disservice.

It was very effective that you pointed out that she didn't get another job and he did.

And he's working at a place where there aren't any female developers!

She has risked being seen as somebody who has a hair trigger, who might start a horrible scandal directed at somebody who really isn't personally, individually malicious. It's just not worth the headache. I understand how she would end up feeling that way, but on the other hand, this was maybe the wrong fight to pick. That doesn’t mean the war doesn't need to be fought.

Maybe she's just digging her heels in a little bit too much.

Given the harassment she endured, I wouldn’t blame her for digging in, but she might secretly feel kind of bad about what happened to him.

Yeah.

I would feel bad if I caused anyone to lose their job, unless they were just a monster.

It's such a nuanced and complicated human story. It did slightly annoy me that someone was asking me what side I was on — why do I have to be on somebody's side? Everything is this fake high drama these days. It's stupid!

Conflict is inevitable in life, and the people who engage in it professionally, like politicians and athletes, figure out how to battle without feeling like your existential self is being attacked. It’s just part of the job. But it’s really hard to do that when it involves issues of identity, and not just racial or gender identity. With Lindsey's case, her attackers are probably people who have been in the service and who recognize that in the class system of the U.S., people in a less-valued class are bundled into that work because the upper classes think they're too good for it. They suffer these horrible traumas, they sacrifice a lot, and then they feel criticized whenever the war is criticized. They don't get the benefits they're supposed to get; they're totally treated as throwaway people! That's their experience, their justified grievance, but sometimes that’s not something that can be articulated. Give them photo of a girl giving the finger in front of the Arlington Cemetery sign and there it all is in a single photo. She became this easily readable, polarizing symbol of everyone who they feel devalues them.

I would add this, actually: The military people who had attacked Lindsey in the first place all felt a bit bad. They’d say, “Yeah, what she did was stupid, but maybe we went after her a bit too much.” The people that went after Justine, on the other hand, were like, “Jon Ronson is racist!” The military attackers of Lindsey were actually really sweet-natured.

She works with autistic children, which I’m sure does not pay well, and maybe they suddenly realized, “She's one of us!”

Exactly, whereas the people I'm much more akin to — the people on the left and the people who believe in social justice — we're the merciless ones!

If you are a journalist or a commentator on Twitter or even just aspiring to that role, you have to build this fortress of ideology. You have to get it exactly right, and when you do it becomes a hammer you can use against your rivals. If you even admit that you could have possibly been wrong, that undermines both your armor and your weapon. It’s not just something you got mad about on social media; it’s your validity as a commentator on society that’s at stake.

In fact, one of the things that surprised me the most when I was anatomizing the Justine thing was how the mainstream media were so scared to say anything. I remember a piece in Variety, by some poor guy who obviously understood that Justine was trying to make a joke but felt he had to write stuff like “disgusting and repugnant” … Like, “Don't hurt me!” My God! The bullies have taken over the school. It is interesting, if another injustice happens, whether people would feel more empowered to push back.

It's just so much easier to step away from it, rather than risk becoming a target yourself.

Exactly.

I think what people also don't realize — or maybe they just don’t care — is that jumping on someone and telling them how terrible they are isn't actually a great form of persuasion. It makes people dig in their heels and get defensive.

Yeah, although I know that Lindsey believed every negative thing that was written about her.

Oh, that's terrible!

It was awful. I reinterviewed her a couple of weeks ago for the BBC and she said she read everything and felt worthless. I really think that when she said "worthless" she meant it; poor Lindsey believed everything. I think Justine had more self-esteem. Even me, with all my self-esteem [laughs] when a little flame war happened after the New York Times extract, I didn't reply to everybody and I muted everybody but I read it all and it definitely made me feel anxious. I was, like, waking up at 4 in the morning and immediately going onto Twitter to see if anything else had happened. Even my tiny rain of shaming had an impact of me.

It's hard not to pay attention when people are attacking you, especially if you're just a young person who's not used to being in the public eye like Lindsey. Two things happened: One, the people who attacked her didn't think of her as a person — she's just a photograph onto which they could project all these fantasies while telling themselves that she can't be hurt. But the other thing is, she also doesn't really see who those people are either. The difference between her experience and your analogy about the pillories and stocks of colonial New England is that as badly as a person in the stocks was treated, everyone who was in the square thinking about spitting on them knew that person and would see them again. And a lot of them knew they could wind up in the same position with the current victim on the other side, deciding whether or not to spit on them.

Yeah. In a way, that's sort of what I discovered when I went to see Judge Ted Poe, [who sentenced offenders to walk around in public with signs naming their crimes]. I met one of the guys who had to do that and he said it was not that bad. The public did not abuse him. Actually, in person, everybody is lovely.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adria Richards Books Jon Ronson Jonah Lehrer Justine Sacco Social Media Twitter




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