Book Review - So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

The award-winning author Jon Ronson was inspired to write his book about public shaming after his online identity was stolen in 2012. The imposters were three academics who had created a Jon Ronson “bot” on Twitter. Their creation had a tendency to tweet strange food cravings and inappropriate musings on sex: “I’m dreaming something about #time and #cock.” Naturally Ronson was nonplussed, but when he confronted the academics they refused to delete the account.

Ronson met them in person and filmed their encounter. When he posted the footage on YouTube he was vindicated. The online community decried the venture as “identity theft” and the academics were forced to eradicate the spambot. Ronson was triumphant: “They had been shamed into acquiescence.” He swiftly realised, however, that there was more to learn from online disgrace.

In 2013, journalist Michael Moynihan wrote an article accusing the popular science author Jonah Lehrer of making up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his book Imagine. Once Moynihan was proved right, further accusations against Lehrer followed and he lost his job at the New Yorker. Ronson interviews Lehrer a number of times, tracking his destruction and attempts to rehabilitate himself in public life. Ronson is highly sympathetic about the vicious Twitter response to Lehrer’s public apology. However, it is telling that Ronson includes Lehrer’s disgrace in his book despite the author asking him not to.

Today you can be publicly lynched via social media for posting an inappropriate photograph or telling a non-PC joke. As Ronson demonstrates, ordinary people are just as much at risk as celebrities. Justine Sacco, a public relations expert, lost her job and found her personal life shattered after an ill-judged tweet. Just before getting on a plane she sent a tweet to her 170 followers: “Going to South Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” During her flight, Sam Biddle, a journalist for the US website Gawker, retweeted her comment to 15,000 followers. The outpouring of vitriol against Sacco was instantaneous. Sacco later told Ronson “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was a literal statement.”

Ronson has an insatiable curiosity about his subjects. He illustrates how women invariably suffer worse abuse than men, with trolls often calling for them to be raped. By contrast, Max Mosley displayed no shame after a sex scandal and suffered little condemnation. Ronson briefly touches on the historical use of stocks as a means of public humiliation. His book would have benefited from a chapter on flogging and public forms of execution that continue in certain cultures today.

As with all lively, quick-witted raconteurs, Ronson tends to make tangential leaps. At one point he is in a shame eradication workshop, and then he is recalling a failed journalistic assignment when he was made up as a woman. Later, Ronson is following the case of Lindsey Stone, who lost her job after posting a jokey photograph at Arlington National Cemetery deemed “offensive” by the online community, and then he is relaxing at Vanessa Branson’s luxury riad in Morocco. Here he meets human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, who describes how to shame expert witnesses in court, and Ronson is off on another mission. These are small caveats. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an enjoyable read that educates as much as it entertains. Ronson reminds us that the effects of ill-advised posts on social media are immediate and that there is no time to build a defence. He also delivers a salutary warning about the dangers of fighting a moral crusade online. Everyone is fair game and one never knows when public support will turn against the self-righteous.

Originally published by the New Humanist