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Social media witch hunts: “We’re the merciless ones!”

31 March 2015

From Salon:

Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” is a departure of sorts for the bestselling humorist/journalist. Instead of interviewing paranoid extremists (“Them”) or bizarre military researchers (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) or convicted murderers (“The Psychopath Test”), he had heart-to-hearts with a publicist, a science journalist, a software developer and a caregiver for adults with learning difficulties. What drew Ronson to this collection of fairly ordinary people is an ordeal they all shared: public shaming in the age of social media.

. . . .

Justine Sacco, the publicist, tweeted a lame joke meant to parody racist attitudes toward AIDS, then boarded a flight to South Africa while Twitter erupted with calls for her head on a platter and gleeful jibes about the nightmare that would greet her when her plane landed. Jonah Lehrer, the journalist, got busted for plagiarism and fabrication and then somehow ended up apologizing at a podium while tweets accusing him of being a “sociopath” and a “delusional, unrepentant narcissist” scrolled up a giant screen behind him. Hank, the developer, made stupid double entendres about dongles with a buddy while sitting in the audience at a tech conference, offending another programmer, Adria Richards, and setting off a string of events that would end with both fired and Richards subjected to horrendous online harassment.

. . . .

All four, and a handful of others whose fates Ronson describes in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” had their lives wrecked when hoards of digitally empowered crusaders descended on them. All lost their jobs. All went through periods of depression and withdrawal. “It’s not like I can date,” Sacco told Ronson, “because we google everyone we might date.” Some, like Lehrer, were more culpable than others, but their stories left Ronson with nagging doubts about the tools he’d once idealized as a means by which “giants were being brought down by people who used to be powerless.” He decided to investigate what he calls “the great renaissance in public shaming.” And he was frightened, badly, by what he found.

. . . .

I was so happy that you were able to help Lindsey Stone, whose name I hesitate to even mention.

Lindsey is quite happy to be part of the conversation. Being talked about in the way that I’ve been talking about her is actually better than having it all vanish. There are few things more traumatizing than being cast out into the wilderness by the masses, and there’s nothing better than being brought back in. So Lindsey — and Justine [Sacco], too — doesn’t really mind being discussed now that people are discussing them in this new way.

Was it Justine’s case that pulled you into the story of social-media shaming?

I was already in the midst of this when I came across her, but when I did, I just thought, “This is unbelievable.” There’s huge numbers of people willfully misunderstanding this woman for their own ideological ends and those people who were doing it: they’re us. I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us. That’s not a world that you want to live in.

. . . .

Some version of what happened to Justine really can happen to anyone, clearly, because how many followers did she have beforehand?

She had 170. And when the New York Times was fact-checking the excerpt they ran, she told them that no one had ever replied to any of her tweets, either.

She thought she was just sending this stuff off into the void.

Exactly, which is why I don’t buy the slightly cold argument of “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” and when you broadcast on Twitter you should expect these things to happen. Justine had no reason to suspect that.

. . . .

I think what people also don’t realize — or maybe they just don’t care — is that jumping on someone and telling them how terrible they are isn’t actually a great form of persuasion. It makes people dig in their heels and get defensive.

Yeah, although I know that Lindsey believed every negative thing that was written about her.

Oh, that’s terrible!

It was awful. I reinterviewed her a couple of weeks ago for the BBC and she said she read everything and felt worthless. I really think that when she said “worthless” she meant it; poor Lindsey believed everything. I think Justine had more self-esteem. Even me, with all my self-esteem [laughs] when a little flame war happened after the New York Times extract, I didn’t reply to everybody and I muted everybody but I read it all and it definitely made me feel anxious. I was, like, waking up at 4 in the morning and immediately going onto Twitter to see if anything else had happened. Even my tiny rain of shaming had an impact of me.

Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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37 Comments to “Social media witch hunts: “We’re the merciless ones!””

  1. This article: Overnight, Everything I Loved Was Gone talked about the Lindsey Stone situation and described a company dedicated to rehabbing online reputations. I thought it was interesting and related to this excerpt from Salon…

    • That was a great article. I honestly don’t remember Lindsey Stone. She seems like a Ferris Bueller type, and it’s sad that what would have been considered free-spirited hijinks in the pre-internet gets era gets one a “scarlet A” nowadays. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the future when “everyone will be digitally lynched for 15 minutes” so folks can learn to chill out. Until then, Fertik’s Reputation Rehab is a great public service.

  2. I can honestly say I’ve never Googled a single person that I’ve dated.

  3. I call Twitter the Butthurt Brigade. I have never seen so many people get so bent out of shape over so little.

    I am on it, but almost never use it.

    • An excellent quote I cannot attribute…

      Twitter is a loud conversation in a small corner of a large room

  4. Robert Forrester

    Butthurt Brigade – you ought to trademark that – it is spot on. It is as if people on Twitter are unaware that we are all human. Everybody says dumb things every now and again but few people deserve the vitriol they receive for it.

    I still can’t believe the furor Andrew Smith received, a great author worth listening to, but who is now afraid to communicate with his fans at all. I’ve parsed the offending sentence a dozen times and can’t understand why so many people got bent out of shape (for those not familiar there’s a summary here: http://www.thirstforfiction.com/opinion/is-andrew-smith-sexist-short-answer-no), he even admitted in the interview that it was a personal failing and was trying to improve on it, what more did people want?

    The thing is, all this self-righteous condemnation will simply lead to anybody with anything remotely interesting to say being too reticent to speak, leaving the Internet the sole domain of mindless reactionary idiots with nothing better to do than look for offence (usually by proxy) in everything they say to each other. Eventually, there will be just one smug, sanctimonious idiot left.

    I already know a few authors who have closed down their social media pages and refuse to engage in anything or even give any interviews – they feel it is just too dangerous.

    • Jesus, I just read your link. I just checked his Twitter feed, and it looks like he’s busy being a writer.

      Some BookRiot person is engaging with people in the comment feed and deny they were attacking him. Calling him out by name, sure. Hiding behind anonymous criticism (“by many accounts, his female characters are just the opposite: one-dimensional and stereotypical”), absolutely. Characterizing him as odd (first subhead: “1. Women Are Not Aliens”), of course. But not attacking him at all.

      Sure, whatever you say.

      • Robert Forrester

        “by many accounts …” I think that sums up the criticism. People who have never read his books but are making assumptions on them.

        Andrew Smith’s biggest crime is that he writes books for young (teen) boys, which by most statistical research are the least likely demographic to pick up a book in the first place. Because he is successful at it and is actually getting young men to read, he’s considered Beelzebub because his books are not ‘inclusive’ enough.

        Jesus, get boys reading first, then you can worry about what it is they are reading when they’ve gotten into the habit and are not scared off books by political correctness in literature.

        • Andrew Smith was criticised, because he said something very stupid in an interview about never having had any contact with women, until he had a daughter. Which is impossible, unless Andrew Smith was a monk living on Mount Athos who suddenly decided to adopt a baby girl.

          Now I’ve never read his books, so I don’t know what they are like. If he gets teen boys reading, good for him. It’s also very possible that some of the criticism of Smith went over the line. But the few posts and articles I read (I didn’t follow the whole thing very closely) were reasoned criticism rather than blind attacks.

          • Smith did not say anything “very stupid”. He did not say he had never “had any contact with women”. If you look at what he said, it is simply that he grew up around males. By implication, the character of males is what he understands thoroughly and that of females, not so much. So writing about males would be “writing about what you know”, which is generally a sound approach. Criticism such as Attig’s is way off base, in my view.

          • But writing about what you know entails noticing things, and currently there is a war on pattern recognition. If you don’t believe me, Google “Google autocomplete function is offensive.”

          • From what I read: He did say something stupid & was reasonably called out for it starting a discussion in the community on a continuing problem in fiction, his words being just one example of a ongoing problem. This was followed by everyone else jumping on & screaming about everybody being so mean to the poor male YA author. Then the many women authors in the genre started pointing out meaner things happen to them all the time, where was the keep YA kind slogan for them? If I remember correctly this then led to the keep YA real slogan.

      • He said: “I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.”

        I guess I need more context, because I don’t see anything worth being stomped on for. Even the part about his daughter just makes me think his wife was a woman, not a girl, when they met.

        • Smith’s own words condemn him. After all, did he not use the phrase “know anything about girls”? To say that there are things to know about girls in particular suggests that they are not identical to the things to know about boys. This carries with it the clear implication that boys and girls might, on some fundamental level, be different, which not only flies in the face of blank-slate social constructivist thought but also has essentialist overtones. And essentialism, we are told, leads directly to the gates of Auschwitz. Therefore the logic of their position demands that egalitarians attack Andrew Smith in order to prevent the rise of the Fourth Reich.

  5. I read stuff like this and I am glad, once again, that I don’t participate in social media. I have never had a Facebook account, or a Twitter account, or a Pinterest or Instagram account, or even a MySpace account back in the day. I have never had a Goodreads account. PG may feel honored (or dishonored, lol), but this is one of the VERY few paces on the internet I’ll actually post anything at all.

    Not only do I value my privacy, I simply don’t want to be bullied. And people WILL find something to object to no matter how innocuous what you think you are saying is. The perceived anonymity of the internet encourages them to bully away.

    The only “social network” where I don’t think this kind of stuff happens quite as much is LinkedIn. Mostly because it forces all participants to use their real names and put their professional reputations on the line. So you aren’t going to post something really stupid without thinking, because your professional reputation is attached. On the flip side, your connections aren’t going to bully you, because their reputations are attached to anything they visibly do on LinkedIn, and none of them want to commit professional suicide either. (I’ve not heard of much more than resume-inflation on LI, and generally that gets caught by employers doing background checks, not necessarily by people on LinkedIn outing the liar.)

  6. I was surprised that Dongle-gate guy was able to be fired so easily. Normally you need to build some kind of trail to defend your firing action, in case you are sued.
    I’m sure a good lawyer could have made short work of that act, but the fired employee didn’t have the heart for it.

    The woman in the equation, Adria, reminds me of an old acquaintance, a very brittle, righteous person who seemed to have no discernment about people’s intent.

    • I read her exactly that way as well, even more so after reading Scott’s link above — she thought people at a conference were going to murder her? Really?! In the article, Hank has become skittish about facing another Adria, and his solution is one that Evil HR Lady or “Ask A Manager” could have predicted: he avoids the demographic entirely, and I suspect he won’t be the only one. The sad thing is that she’s an outlier, but stories like this get so much attention that people think this behavior is more prevalent than it is. This may sort itself out in time, assuming people learn to chill out about the lynch mobs and the two-minute hate piles.

    • If I remember correctly, and I’m not absolutely certain that I do, but he was already “in trouble” at work for something. The DongleGate thing was a final straw.

      • I followed the matter fairly closely but remember nothing at all about his already being in trouble at work. In any event, what he actually was fired for was nothing that should cost anybody his job.

        • I swear I read it in an interview with the author, but found the link again, and didn’t see it in a re-read. Weird.

          • I was positive I read that he’d already been in trouble, too. So I checked the Ars Technica article where I first read about this case, and see that they said PlayHaven refused to give details about “all the factors that led up to the firing.” The “all the factors” part probably morphed into “in trouble already” in my mind.

  7. Social justice and ‘tolerance’ is only for those that agree with you, apparently. Big Government uses cases like these to outlaw ‘hate speech’, which inevitably leads to ceaseless propaganda and the shaming of mere political opponents. Wait, I just leaked the business plan of Salon, how ironic.

  8. I think being caught plagiarizing is rather a different circumstance than the others named in the article. Nonetheless, shame on the shamers.

  9. I know I came to this party late, but my own take away from this story is that just as in the “real” world the law needs to balance freedom of assembly with the need to disburse a potentially dangerous mob, we have reached a point where the law now needs to balance freedom of expression with just how extraordinarily destructive it can be when attacks become memes and go viral.

    As our friendly neighborhood law-talkin’ guy, I’m hoping the PG himself will comment.

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