Jon Ronson’s oeuvre might be classified as the study of ‘very weird human behaviour’; his previous books, Them – Adventures With Extremists (2001, Picador), The Psychopath Test (2011, Riverhead Books), and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004, Picador) all look at examples of this. However his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, unlike the rest, seems to speak not just of individual eccentrics like David Icke or groups of extremists, but of an across the board change in human behaviour primarily in the Western World due to the rapid fire response to certain news or other events on Twitter. Or maybe it isn’t a change in behavior at all – rather the internet has allowed widespread and unfiltered instant communication to anyone via social media and as Ronson makes clear, these things can snowball with alarming speed.
Where once the letters’ editors of newspapers put the ranters and the crazies and the dangerous-sounding in the waste paper bin, now everyone has a public platform. The kind of things people say on Twitter as reported by Ronson, you used to hear (and can probably still can hear) on public transport or in pubs, but these were verbal utterances, out-breaths of carbon-dioxide that were dealt with there and then or dissolved for the most part into nothingness. Where once you could either challenge the racist in the pub, the sexist in the office, the homophobe on the bus, or step away sadly shaking your head at their bigotry, now everyone is free to let rip with their quick judgment and almost instantly others are quick to get on board. This has led to the phenomena of public shaming on social media which Ronson perceived at its beginnings as democratic, liberating and powerful.
Shame, Ronson makes clear, that white hot burning sensation of humiliation is deeply felt and immensely damaging to the human psyche. The cases of public shaming Ronson examines are diverse and his conclusions are startling even though some of what he describes may already be public knowledge. For example, that for a man, sexual controversies; romps with prostitutes plus a bit of Nazi role-play and S & M, the shame does not seem to affect him, but slides off as if he were Teflon – as was the case with Max Mosley. While in extreme contrast, a couple of women who made inappropriate jokes on Twitter or Facebook were hounded by thousands of strangers and threatened repeatedly with the vilest sexual violence.
One of the most ironic examples of public shaming involved a woman who, while at a computing conference, overheard a couple of rather nerdy-looking men making comments filled with sexual innuendoes about dongles. Her response was to photograph the offenders and post it online with a brief description of their offences. From the scant evidence Ronson gives about what the two men actually said, the woman as object was absent and the humour, such as it was, seemed to borrow sexual terminology to comment on computer technology rather than vice versa. The woman later reported that she felt threatened. Reading the account of how things developed is startling; within days of her tweet one of the men was sacked. He then posted a statement apologizing and explaining that he had lost his job as a result. The woman then contacted his former employers asking that they ask him to remove the part about losing his job. It was at this point that that bloggers and tweeters turned on her with extreme comments such as, ‘Let’s crucify this cunt.’ ‘Kill her.’ Following this the company she worked for came under cyber attack and their website crashed with the result that she too was sacked within hours.
It’s tempting to get caught up in a retelling of the various tales in a book like this. It’s also tempting because Ronson’s style is so light of touch and tinged with satire to not quite take his message seriously. His supreme readability, his kind of goggle-eyed, self-mocking astonishment can come across as superficial, but actually this book is an important study of a world gone slightly mad.
As Ronson reports in a new chapter in the paperback edition, since its first publication the internet has played an important part in highlighting police brutality against people of colour, they ‘were dying: Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland.’ The distribution of videos about these cases showed that social media could create, ‘a new civil-rights battlefield.’
Ronson’s book is not only a study of public shame and how it’s changed due to social media, but a timely analysis of the high speed exchange of information at a grass roots level and an indictment of the mob mentality that lurks like a coiled snake on the internet awaiting its next victim. However his final point is a plea against silence, ‘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.’