Throughout So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson pays careful attention to how the internet has become the new public square—and how Twitter dogpiles and viral articles are the new public lashings. Public shaming was once a careful, nuanced “process” that was carried out by courts and churches in response to a moral or legal transgression. For instance, if someone committed adultery, they and their lover would be whipped in the public square for all to see. But now, the ubiquity and accessibility of social media has created an environment in which shaming is in the hands of everyday people who can easily begin a “free-for-all” against anyone who’s perceived to be misusing their privilege, violating a social norm, or simply behaving badly. Ronson argues that this leap from structured process to mob takedown has made public shamings more horrific than ever before. In Ronson’s opinion, stopping this madness requires people to become more responsible and measured when it comes to social media.
Early in the book, Ronson contrasts the structured (though still brutal) processes that governed public shamings in earlier centuries against the frenzied social media shamings that take place today. In earlier centuries, there were protocols for public shamings; certain crimes carried certain punishments, and judges meted out the penalty that seemed best. But even those more measured public shamings drew broad criticism. Newspapers in the 1800s, for instance, ran criticisms of public shamings, calling the punishments—and the humiliation they caused—“worse […] than death.” This widespread criticism led to public shamings being phased out as a method of punishment, as they were seen to be inappropriate and excessively punitive. But while contemporary social media shamings might seem to do less harm by comparison (since they don’t involve physical violence), Ronson believes that modern-day online shamings can have even greater consequences than their outdated counterparts. Public shamings used to be confined to a local community, for instance. But now, in the age of social media, millions of people across the globe can instantly view someone’s greatest secrets, embarrassments, and mistakes. Moreover, because public shamings aren’t meted out through a judicial process anymore, there’s no telling when they’ll end and there’s no guarantee that the punishment will even remotely fit the crime. A public whipping was a terrible burden to bear—but when it was over, it was over. With the advent of the internet and social media, the shamings can go on for years, flaring up and dying down over and over again. And because so much personal information is available online, people’s families, homes, and personal safety can be threatened—sometimes all for a tasteless joke. The chaos of contemporary public shamings, in Ronson’s estimation, makes them even more “ferocious” than they used to be.
While social media can be a useful tool to bring attention to political issues, Ronson urges users to learn to differentiate between a “powerful and important” call to action and a “pointless and nasty cathartic alternative.” Ronson acknowledges that social media does have the power to be used for good, and that some shamings are necessary. For instance, videos of police brutality can be used to hold law enforcement accountable and raise awareness about racism. But rallying the power of millions of users to take down someone like Justine Sacco or Lindsey Stone, Ronson suggests, isn’t just “pointless and nasty”—it can ruin and endanger lives. “We are the ones with power,” Ronson writes in the book’s afterword, referring to internet users and participants in social media shamings. Thus, it’s “incumbent upon us to recognize the difference” between necessary, productive callouts that create meaningful discourse and the violent, inhumane attacks that derail people’s livelihoods and reputations forever.
Shame and Social Media ThemeTracker
Shame and Social Media Quotes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
I won. Within days, the academics took down @Jon_Ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence. Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. Something was out of kilter. The community rallied. The balance was redressed.
We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years […], it was back in a big way. When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.
It didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether the person we had just shamed was okay or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.
A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
All these people had […] come together spontaneously, without leadership. I wasn’t one of them. But I’d piled on plenty of people like Justine. I’d been beguiled by the new technology—a toddler crawling toward a gun. Just like with Dave Eshelman, it was the desire to do something good that had propelled me. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps—I’d torn apart a lot of people I couldn’t now remember—which made me suspect that it was coming from some very weird dark well, some place I really didn't want to think about.
It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame, and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.
“Literally, overnight everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey said.
And that's when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.
The criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners—young, black—have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time—bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.
I thought about Justine Sacco. How many of the people piling on her had been emotionally damaged by what they had read? As far as I could tell, only one person was damaged in that pile-on.
“Normal prison is punishment in the worst sense,” Jim told me. “It’s like a soul-bleeding. Day in, day out, people find themselves doing virtually nothing in a very negative environment.”
I thought of Lindsey Stone, just sitting at her kitchen table for almost a year, staring at the online shamings of people just like her.
“People move away from themselves,” Jim said. “Inmates tell me time and again that they feel themselves shutting down, building a wall.”
Social media gives a voice to voiceless people—its egalitarianism is its greatest quality. But I was struck by a report […] that had been written by a Stasi psychologist tasked with trying to understand why they were attracting so many willing informants. His conclusion: “It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing.”
We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with. I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they've committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, […] but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.
Feedback loops. You exhibit some type of behavior (you drive at twenty-seven miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone). You get instant real-time feedback for it (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-seven miles per hour). You change your behavior as a result of the feedback (you lower your speed to twenty-five miles per hour). You get instant feedback for that decision, too (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-five miles per hour now. Some signs flash up a smiley-face emoticon to congratulate you).
[Feedback loops are] turning social media into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”
We express our opinion that Justine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this […]. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it.
“The tech-utopians […] present this as a new kind of democracy,” [my friend wrote]. “It isn’t. It’s the opposite. It locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”
If anyone should change their behavior, I thought, it ought to be those doing the shaming. Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like “Don’t wear short skirts.” It felt like victim-blaming.
“The essay might be a turning-point,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Twitter-shaming allows people who complacently think of themselves as basically nice to indulge in the dark thrill of bullying—in a righteous cause. Perhaps Ronson’s article will cause a questioning of Twitter’s instant-Salem culture of shame.”
People were realizing […] that what happened to Justine wasn’t social justice. It was a “cathartic alternative.”
Using social media to distribute […] videos [of police brutality] was a world away from calling a woman who’d just been in a train crash a privileged bitch because she wanted her violin to be okay. One act was powerful and important—using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield. The other was a pointless and nasty cathartic alternative. Given that we are the ones with the power, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the difference.
What’s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are gray areas.
And so, unpleasant as it will surely be for you, when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices—that’s democracy.
The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.