In October of 2012, Lindsey Stone—a caregiver at a center for adults with learning difficulties—chaperoned a fun, educational trip to Washington, D.C. But something happened during the trip that would change Lindsey’s life forever. Off-duty, Lindsey and Jamie, another caregiver, had a running joke of taking silly photographs together. They’d do things like smoke in front of a NO SMOKING sign or mimic a statue’s pose. At Arlington cemetery, the two noticed a sign urging “SILENCE AND RESPECT.” Lindsey crouched down near the sign and mimed screaming loudly while giving a nearby grave the middle finger. Jamie uploaded the picture to Facebook (with Lindsey’s consent) and while a few of their friends commented that the picture was “kind of offensive,” nothing much happened.
Ronson has already shown how a badly worded joke tweet, in today’s contemporary shaming climate, can derail a person’s life. As he introduces Lindsey Stone’s story, there’s a tragic undercurrent. It’s clear that her and her friend’s silly inside joke is about to be the cause of Lindsey’s own encounter with the brutal, cyclical public shaming process. Lindsey didn’t take the photo with any ill intent—but to the internet, intent is often irrelevant.
Jamie asked Lindsey if they should take the picture down, but Stone insisted things were fine. Little did she know, Jamie’s mobile uploads album wasn’t private—and a month after returning from D.C., the picture became public (and went viral). The internet was full of violent, misogynistic death threats aimed at Lindsey. People created “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook pages that attracted thousands of followers, and Lindsey obsessively read everything she could find about herself. The next day, there were news crews in front of her home. Lindsey was fired from her job. She fell into a depression and essentially stayed inside for a year.
Lindsey’s public shaming, like Justine Sacco’s, jumped the gap from the internet to the real world seemingly overnight. Like Justine, Lindsey didn’t just have to contend with online trolls—she and her family were harassed by the media, and Lindsey’s career, too, was derailed as a result of her seemingly innocuous actions. Like Sacco, this passage suggests, Lindsey experienced an unfair and outsized amount of public scrutiny because she was a woman who made a tasteless joke.
Lindsey eventually found a new job caring for children with autism, but the fear that her new employers would unearth the old story about her followed her every day. She’d considered telling them the truth in her interview, but she didn’t feel the moment was right. During her conversation with Ronson, Stone had been working at the new center for four months without incident. But she felt she couldn’t come clean now and she couldn’t ask whether her employers had uncovered the truth on their own, and she was stuck.
This passage shows that Lindsey’s initial public shaming created a cycle of shame within her personal and professional lives. She lived in constant fear of her old shame being dredged up and renewed—and this greatly impacted her day-to-day emotional and mental state.
Lindsey’s life was about to change again. Ronson had met two men: Graeme Wood and Phineas Upham, former Harvard classmates. Over a decade after graduating from Harvard, Upham and his mother were arrested on tax evasion charges. The matter was resolved quickly, but the Google results for his name told the whole story. When Wood would search his former classmate’s name, he’d find lots of articles and blog posts about Upham being a philanthropist, a successful writer, and a magazine editor, but the webpages were “flimsy and temporary.” Upham was using fake websites to push results relating to the tax scandal further down. Wood discovered that a man named Bryce Tom, the head of Metal Rabbit Media, was behind the fake sites.
This introduces another tactic for dealing with internet shamings: trying to alter one’s google results so that content related to the shaming is unlikely to be the first thing associated with someone. Whether these individuals are doing so for selfish reasons or philanthropic ones, they’re subverting the algorithms that can contribute to an individual’s lifelong struggle to escape evidence of a past shaming. This offers hope for Lindsey Stone.
Ronson couldn’t get Tom to talk to him—but he did successfully get in touch with another person from the “reputation-management world” named Michael Fertik. Fertik revealed that many of the people in this sector were nasty or corrupt, and some had been accused of heinous crimes—but they’d been able to scrub all of the bad information about themselves from the internet. Fertik’s company, Reputation.com, helps people restore their reputations, but Fertik has a code of ethics. He doesn’t honor requests from pedophiles and neo-Nazis, and he doesn’t put fake information out into the world—only the truth.
While there are people out there who want to help shaming victims put their lives back together, the reputation management industry is a bit chaotic. Some people operate ethically, while others might be willing to help people whose actions and beliefs are truly immoral or dangerous. It’s important to note that some people’s beliefs and opinions are indeed shame-worthy—there’s a distinction between someone who tweets a bad joke and someone who preys on children.
To show Ronson how his business worked, Fertik offered to let him observe the reputation cleanup of the leader of a religious group who’d been accused of murdering his brother. But after the religious leader, “Gregory,” initiated communications with Ronson and tried to get Ronson to sign a contract stating he’d only write about Gregory in a positive light, things went south, and Gregory refused Fertik’s offer of pro-bono services. Ronson suggested Justine Sacco take Gregory’s place, but Fertik’s team didn’t want to take her case. So Ronson suggested Lindsey Stone instead, and even though Fertik predicted it would take “at least a hundred grand” to successfully complete Lindsey’s case, he agreed to take her on.
This passage shows how massive an undertaking it is to scrub someone’s history from the internet—to remove the evidence of one single Facebook photo, it would cost around a hundred thousand dollars. Fertik’s firm was prepared to invest a huge amount of time and money in the rehabilitation of Lindsey Stone’s reputation—but when it came to someone like Justine Sacco who’d gone so viral so quickly, they admitted that there was little that they could do. Again, this illustrates how painful it is when a public shaming causes much more damage to a person’s life than that individual ever deserved to face.
Fertik couldn’t start working on Lindsey’s case for a few months, so in the meantime, Ronson accepted an invitation from Richard Branson’s sister Vanessa to a salon at her Marrakech home. Artists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and other notable people would be at the salon, and Ronson was eager to be in the mix. When Clive Stafford Smith, a prominent English society man turned death-row lawyer in Mississippi, arrived, Ronson was excited to speak with him. Smith spoke of his desire to abolish prisons, because the criminal justice system incarcerated people who didn’t deserve their punishments.
Ronson’s conversation at the Branson salon shows that the internet’s tendency to punish those who don’t deserve to be inhumanely castigated in public has a real-world parallel. Criminal justice systems the world over erroneously punish innocent people, derailing or destroying lives as innocent people or people accused of non-violent crimes suffer unjustly for decades.
The two of them continued speaking about incarceration, public shaming, and citizen justice; Smith admitted that shame is an important tool in trials, because shaming someone on the witness stand can turn a case on its head. Shame was a front-line tactic in court, and it was on its way to becoming one on the internet, too. Ronson worried what such a premium on shame would “do to the participants” of public shamings.
Shame is a kind of currency in the modern world—it’s an effective motivator, and it’s increasingly rarely deployed for righteous reasons. Shame can be used to destroy lives both on the internet and in the real world, as Ronson will soon investigate.