What happened to the dream of online democracy asks Jon Ronson in his new book which tackles the spectre of “social media shaming”by Jonathan Derbyshire / March 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Reviewing Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” this week, India Knight described it as “terrifying”. She was right. It’s a highly unsettling exploration of what Ronson calls “social media shaming”—the kind of thing that ended up destroying the career of the American PR executive Justine Sacco, after a joke she tweeted as she was getting on a flight to South Africa went wrong.
In the book, Sacco tells Ronson that she was trying to draw attention to the “dire situation that… exists in post-apartheid South Africa”. Twitter, however, didn’t get the joke, and when she landed in Cape Town, Sacco discovered that her tweet was trending worldwide—she also discovered just what an effective mechanism Twitter is for processing opprobrium and rage. “Over the years,” Ronson writes, “I’ve sat across tables from a lot of people whose lives have been destroyed… Justine Sacco felt like the first person I had ever interviewed who had been destroyed by us.”
I met Ronson earlier this week. I told him that it seemed to me that one of the things his book is about is his growing disillusionment with the internet and the evaporation of the democratic promise that it seemed to embody in the early days. At the end of the book, he quotes his friend Adam Curtis, the documentary-maker, who says that the internet has turned out to be precisely the opposite of the kind of democracy that the Wired crowd, the techno-utopians, claimed it would be.
JR: Adam is very prescient! Years and years ago, when I’d just got into Twitter and was thinking, “This is the Garden of Eden—voiceless people have got a voice, it’s a profoundly positive change in human behaviour,” Adam just looked at me like I was insane. He said, “No, this is a terrible thing. For a start, it’s profoundly narcissistic. If everybody’s looking inwards at their own domestic lives, nobody’s going to do anything about changing the world.” And also, he said it was like a kind of echo chamber. I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re wrong.” And of course, a few years later, he’s been proved right. It’s this mutual approval machine that’s profoundly conservative and conforming. Adam’s new prediction about the internet, which I didn’t put in the book… he says the internet is like the inner city communities of the 1970s and 80s, where everything got completely out of control and everyone fled to the suburbs. People are going to flee the internet.
JD: You say you started out thinking of Twitter as a kind of Garden of Eden. And there’s certainly a prelapsarian quality to the beginning of the book, where you acknowledge your own enthusiasm for early instances of Twitter-shaming—the Jan Moir episode, for example, in which the Daily Mail journalist was pilloried by a virtual mob for an article she wrote about the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.
What was so wonderful about Twitter back in those days was that not only was it giving a voice to voiceless people, and people were finding their voice to be relevant and funny, it was also this kind of wonderful de-shaming space where people would share these hitherto shameful secrets about themselves. Twitter back then was kind of this place where people would de-shame each other. And what inevitably came from that is that people would start these shaming campaigns against people who didn’t feel that way. So Jan Moir was doing the opposite—she was saying, “Let’s shame this person for dying because he was in a civil partnership.” Which was the opposite of our utopia. This was old-time bigotry that we were working hard to abolish. We went for them. And it was good and right. And then what happened was that we fell too in love with destroying people and we started destroying anyone who came along. We became the thing we were trying to abolish—we started destroying Justine Sacco for a liberal joke that landed badly. It’s so interesting that we just turned around and ate our own tail.
The human impulse to shame others is not new, of course. So what’s new about shaming in the internet age?
I think there’s this mutual approval machine that goes on with Twitter. An inadvertent by-product of the way it was set up was that it became this kind of conformity machine, because we surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do. And there’s something powerful about that. And if somebody comes along to destabilise the system, we screen them out. It’s the opposite of democracy—in a democracy, you want to hear other people’s points of view. But on Twitter we drown out opposing points of view. Adam [Curtis] calls it “mutual grooming”.
Have you thought about leaving Twitter?
No, because I still love the really positive things about it. It’s a very egalitarian place. Newspapers came along and tried to take that away from it—they’d write articles about “100 great tweeters”. That was another snake in the Garden of Eden. Because one of the things I love about Twitter is that it’s a level playing field.
When you encountered the people who created a “Jon Ronson” spambot, you got very indignant when they suggested you might be using Twitter to promote your personal “brand”…
I suppose they had a point! But it felt to me that Twitter was this incredible new place where people could be themselves. If you had ten Twitter followers or a million Twitter followers, it didn’t really matter, because it was all about being able to broadcast your voice. I was definitely very idealistic about Twitter back then. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. We were the people… it was us idealists, us liberal, politically correct people who turned powerful and crazy and cruel. This book felt more important to me than my previous books because the crazy, cruel people were us.
Right. Your earlier books were about marginal, crazy people. But this is a book not about “them” (to take the title of one of those earlier books), but about us.
That’s why I chose the people I did as case studies. Justine Sacco was definitely massacred by us. And that’s very uncomfortable. In fact, the Washington Post published a column saying I was right to criticise Twitter’s lynch mob mentality, but that I was wrong to choose Justine Sacco as a person to defend. That just strengthened my resolve. The fact that Justine Sacco’s a complicated person means there’s all the more reason for me to defend her.
You have sympathy for both the shamers and the shamed, don’t you?
Yes, absolutely. That’s very deliberate. If I was going to write a book about public shaming I could hardly publicly shame anyone in it! When I first started writing this book, I went to a TED event where I talked to Chris Anderson, and he said: “How are you going to write a book about public shaming in which nobody gets shamed? Either you re-shame the shamed or you shame the shamers.” I always felt pretty relaxed about that. I always knew the only way to write the book was not shaming. A few of the radical anti-shamers I spoke to in the book—people like James Gilligan [an American psychiatrist who specialises in working with violent offenders]—said I had to write a book that was against shaming in all of its incarnations. When you spend time with those people, you completely see it from their point of view. But in the end, I’m glad I didn’t write a book that said, “Let’s eradicate shame in all its forms.” That’s a hard position to carry on defending when something like the Eric Garner situation happens. I could have [written a book that was completely anti-shaming], I could have fallen in love with my subject matter and been too polemical. It’s where I got to at one point. I guess I had to remind myself that I’m not an ideologue. It’s not my place to make a big ideological argument.
When you’re writing a book like this you have to draw your own lines. If I’m against publicly shaming Justine Sacco, does that mean I’m against satire? Am I against journalism? Am I against criticism? I had to think very hard about this stuff. I felt a great sense of relief when I realised that I’m not against satire. I’m against disproportionate punishment.
The cases you discuss in the book are all very different. For example, there’s a difference in your treatment of Justine Sacco and your treatment of Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker writer who was found to have fabricated quotes and plagiarised his own work.
I am sympathetic towards Jonah, though. I’m certainly sympathetic to [the idea] of Jonah being given a second chance. I want to live in a world where people get another chance. But there’s no question that what Jonah did was objectively worse than Justine Sacco. I felt relieved when I came to the conclusion—and it took me a while to get there—that I could humanise Jonah and say that what happened [to him] in front of that Twitter feed [when Lehrer delivered a public mea culpa in front of screens showing him being attacked on Twitter in real time] was brutal without feeling the need to exonerate him. It wasn’t my job to exonerate Jonah, but you can still humanise him, you can still feel sorry for what happened to him when he tried to apologise.
I wrote a piece years ago about this guy who killed his wife and family and then himself, Christopher Foster. The whole piece was about me trying to understand what led him to do it. To this day, every so often I get criticised for that piece, as if I was trying to excuse him. But there’s a huge difference between trying to understand what drives somebody to do this and excusing them. But a lot of people don’t want them. It’s why James Gilligan hasn’t had the success he should have had.
You say at one point in the book that you’re steeling yourself for the backlash, especially to your defence of Sacco. Has that started yet?
It’s happened a little bit. My New York Times extract came out and 95 per cent [of the reaction] was people supporting the piece. Lots of people were retweeting the extract. I saw someone on Twitter say, “All you people retweeting Jon Ronson’s extract about Justine Sacco as if you weren’t the fuckers who did it in the first place!” But then there was a bit of a backlash—maybe a hundred people. And it all happened at once, so it was obvious that it was kind of coordinated. I think it’s called a “flame war”. They all bombarded me at once. It was things along the lines of “What racist is Jon Ronson going to put his cape on for next?” I didn’t respond at all. And then someone said, “Why isn’t Jon Ronson responding?” And somebody else wrote, “It’s because Jon Ronson only responds to men.” I have no male friends! But I was a blank canvass on which people projected their ideologies.
You draw an interesting parallel between Lehrer’s case and the case of Stephen Glass, an American journalist who was found in 1998 to have fabricated material in numerous “non-fiction” articles. That was so early in the internet age as to be, to all intents and purposes, pre-internet. So what changes in cases like this once you’ve got the internet? Is it just a question of the scale of the outrage that ensues?
Scale, and maybe also the fact that we suddenly all have the right to broadcast our opinions about somebody. And our default has become outrage. The thing about Stephen Glass is that America is quite frightening… the concept of re-entry is not as sacrosanct in America as it is in this country. I think that reflects very well on us. It will be interesting to see when Jonah Lehrer begins his book out whether he’s rejected more than Johann Hari has been. Even liberal Americans are very draconian when it comes to justice. But I don’t think we should let ourselves off the hook too easily. We’re hanging judges too.
Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is published by Picador (£16.99)