We're Tearing Each Other Apart on Social Media

Welsh journalist Jon Ronson is the master of what Jon Stewart describes as “Investigative Satire.” When Ronson appeared on “The Daily Show” in 2013, Stewart told him: “You have developed something…it’s almost like a new category of investigative satire. You go and you explore with great intellectual curiosity and you find a way to make it very funny. You know how Richard Engel goes into Syria, crawls in? You do that, for comedy.”

But the subject of Ronson’s latest “investigative satire” is more frightening that funny. His new book is called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” Ronson investigates the public shaming renaissance and while there is some humor along the way, there are also a lot of disturbing revelations.

In a conversation with Doug Gordon, Ronson said that public shaming has become rampant as a result of social media. He says that Twitter is set up so that you surround yourself with like-minded people. “And on a good day, that’s a truly wonderful, revolutionary things. If you’re having a really bad time in your actual life, you can go on to Twitter and you’re immediately surrounded with funny, eloquent, like-minded people, strangers. But when we’re tearing somebody apart, we’re all doing it and there’s nobody in our circle telling us to stop.”

PR executive Justine Sacco is a perfect example of social media’s pack-mentality mindset. On December 20, 2013, Sacco the following tweet just before boarding a plane to Capetown: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

After sleeping during the 11-hour flight, the plane landed. Sacco turned on her phone and received a text from a friend that she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Then she received a text from her best friend, Hannah: “You need to call me immediately. You’re the number one worldwide trend on Twitter right now.”

Sacco did not intend her tweet to be racist — in fact, she was trying to make fun of her own white privilege. Ronson compared her intentions to those of Randy Newman, the singer/songwriter famous for his sarcastic songs. “You know, Randy Newman does it well in songs like ‘Short People,’” Ronson explained. “‘Short people have got no reason to live.’ It was just in the tradition of that. She just wasn’t good at it. What destroyed her was not being as good at it as Randy Newman.”

Sacco’s inability to match Newman’s talent for sarcastic humor meant that she was soon the victim of a vicious onslaught of online shaming. Among the nastiest tweets:

“Trolls were saying, ‘Let’s rape her,’” Ronson said. “‘Somebody HIV-positive should rape her and then we’ll find out if her skin color protects her from AIDS.’ By the way, nobody went after that person because everyone was so excited about going after Justine Sacco. We can only destroy one person a night.”

According to Ronson, the trolls’ vicious attacks aren’t the worst thing that the targets of online shaming endure. “As awful as it is to be attacked by trolls who use outrageous language, like death threats and rape threats, to be told by your entire community that you are worthless and you need to get out is worse because there’s no support group there, there’s nobody there to help you through.”

Ronson’s book was released around the same time as Monica Lewinsky gave a TED Talk called “The Price of Shame.” Ronson and Lewinsky recently had a conversation about shame for “Vanity Fair”; you can watch the video here. Ronson says he’s hoping that his book and Lewinsky’s TED Talk and the resulting media coverage about public shaming will help people become more compassionate and more understanding.

An offender (of prostitution) exposed to public shame

Public Shaming on Social Media

Jon Ronson talks about the renaissance of public shaming that's happening online.

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