After a researcher at the University of Warwick created a spambot that splices and recycles content from journalist Jon Ronson’s Twitter to humiliating effect, Ronson sets out to investigate the internet as a place where contemporary versions of old-fashioned public shamings unfold. An avid internet user, Ronson believes that social media has become a place where people are made to feel “powerless and sullied” for transgressions both major and minor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, public shamings were sanctioned by a court or church, governed by specific processes, and carried out in a town’s public square. Now, shamings are less of a “process” and far more chaotic—and thus, in a way, even more humiliating and dangerous.
Ronson begins the book in familiar territory: the literary world. He tells the story of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was publicly shamed in 2012 after a fellow journalist, Michael Moynihan, uncovered fabrications in one of Lehrer’s bestsellers. Lehrer was excoriated across the internet. Desperate to redeem his image, he attended a luncheon for the Knight Foundation, an American nonprofit that that funds journalism grants, and delivered a public apology in front of a screen broadcasting a livestream of tweets responding to the address. Some readers were ready to forgive Lehrer—but others called him a “sociopath” and maintained that his career was toast. When it was discovered that Lehrer received a $20,000 speaking fee for appearing at the luncheon, the internet turned against him once again.
Ronson also shares the story of Justine Sacco, a New York PR executive who was torn apart by the internet after she tweeted a joke (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) that was meant to lampoon American ignorance and exceptionalism. But the tweet’s poor wording (and, Ronson thinks, the internet’s thirst for a scandal) meant that Sacco was immediately brutally shamed. Ronson found Sacco’s story to be an example of a person misusing their privilege—and the internet responding to the transgression with an all-out attempt to destroy that person’s life.
As the book continues, Ronson investigates where the impulse to publicly shame someone comes from. Through the story of “Hank” and a woman named Adria Richards, Ronson illustrates that many people participate in pile-ons because they think they’re doing something good. When Adria Richards called Hank out on the internet for making lewd puns in the audience of a presentation at a tech conference, the internet attacked Hank so virulently that he lost his job. But once he did, men’s rights activists on platforms like 4chan began assaulting Adria Richards with threats of violence, rape, and murder. She, too, lost her job—a casualty of the ever-escalating, game-like nature of remote internet shamings.
Inspired by the story of Max Mosley—a British socialite who survived a public shaming after a tabloid printed pictures of Mosley at a German-themed orgy—Ronson sets out to see if there is such a thing as a “shame-free paradise.” Ronson is hopeful he’ll be able to interview Mosley about how he made it through his shaming, but Mosley himself has no idea how he made it through and resisted shame.
Ronson attends a public-shaming-themed porn shoot where the participants seek to free themselves from shame by embracing fantasy. He then joins a self-help group dedicated to using the concept of Radical Honesty to eradicate shame by embracing the truth. He interviews Mike Daisey, a theatrical monologist who fabricated parts of his one-man show about worker abuses in Apple factories in China, and who salvaged his reputation by leaning into the error of his ways—and the good intent behind that error. By actively working to reject feelings of shame, Ronson begins to believe, people might be able to avoid the effects of public shamings entirely.
But the road to eradicating shame often proves more difficult than just rejecting feelings of ashamedness. People like Lindsey Stone, who had a satirical photograph of herself go viral and subsequently lost her job, feel haunted by their Google search results. Some people who acted out of shame—like prison inmates who committed crimes to combat the numbness inspired by painful pasts—became trapped in cycles of violence. Ronson visits a prison to witness how unhelpful incarceration is in mitigating shame, and he secures Lindsey Stone the help of a service that promises to help her manipulate Google search results and rehabilitate her online reputation.
Ronson ultimately determines that feedback loops—psychological phenomena in which people find that they’re incentivized to repeat behavior that is instantaneously rewarded—are at the heart of uncontrollable social media frenzies. While tech professionals believed that the internet was a “new kind of democracy,” Ronson comes to believe that echo chambers and feedback loops are only tearing down anyone who existed outside of what was considered normal and acceptable.
In an afterword written for the paperback edition of the book, Ronson recounts the difficulty of publishing a book about public shamings at the height of contemporary public shamings. Ronson faced readers who tweeted out lines from uncorrected advance reading copies—lines he cut from the published version—and audience members who heckled him at his readings. More sensitive to public shamings than ever, Ronson spoke up online to defend the maligned Rachel Dolezal in June of 2015—and he himself was shamed for sharing his opinion.
Ronson concludes that he remains hopeful that social media will be used as a tool to call out true abuses of power like police brutality. But he also admits his fear that the medium is ultimately too dismissive of nuance and too encouraging of sameness and homogeny. He urges his readers to ensure that the world isn’t turned into one in which being “voiceless” is the simplest way to survive.