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How social media led to a ‘renaissance’ of public shaming

May 18, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
In the age of social media, one poorly worded tweet is enough to destroy a career or even a life. Jeffrey Brown talks to Jon Ronson, the author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” about numerous cases of people discovering the impact of social media the hard way, and how the Internet has become the our culture’s town square for public shaming.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: social media as a public shaming tool.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest from the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: In December 2013, a young woman named Justine Sacco wrote this tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.”

She hit send, and out it went to her 170 followers.

JON RONSON, Author, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”: She got on the plane, turned off her phone, woke up 11 hours later, turned on her phone, and discovered that her life was utterly destroyed.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was a Twitter sensation.

JON RONSON: The worldwide number one.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in the worst way.

JON RONSON: In the worst way. It was like hundreds of thousands of tweets along the lines of, we’re about to get this woman fired in real time before she even knows she’s being fired.

JEFFREY BROWN: The blitz of online outrage did indeed lead Sacco’s company to fire her. She said later she thought was making a joke about her own privilege.

But that’s not how the Twitterverse heard it. Sacco’s story is just one of many told in the new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”

The author is Jon Ronson, a man who knows his way around Twitter. He has 112,000 followers and has sent out more than 45,000 tweets himself.

We’re in a renaissance of public shaming, you write, brought about by social media and the Internet.

JON RONSON: Yes, brought about by this sort of weird approval machine that is social media. So we start to kind of — we uncover a transgressor, sometimes by just like some inappropriate phraseology in some tweet, and then we pile in on that person.

And because we surround ourselves on social media by people who feel the same way we do, we just mutually approve each other as we carry on tearing that person apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that you’re writing about, on the one hand, we all have something we want to hide, or at least that we don’t want coming out publicly, right?  On the other hand, now we have this technology that allows everything to come out and it comes out in the nastiest ways often enough.


JEFFREY BROWN: Even about relatively small things.


It’s so interesting you say that, because this is what’s happening. We are destroying people routinely, daily, and destroying them with the thing we are most terrified would happen to us. You know, we all of us have bubbling away within us something that we’re just terrified would destroy our reputation if it came out.

And yet we are doing exactly that to other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, public shaming, once meted out in the stocks in the town square, is now carried out in the new town square of social media. Ronson tells of numerous cases, well-known ones like writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught for embellishing and fabricating parts of his stories, and lesser known tales, like Lindsey Stone’s, who was fired from her job after posting what she thought was a funny photo of herself making a vulgar gesture at Arlington National Cemetery.

The stories can be harrowing and complicated, affecting both shamee and shamer.

JON RONSON: I wrote about a man called Hank who just whispered a slightly “Beavis and Butt-Head”-type sexist joke to the guy sitting next to him at a conference about big dongles, and the woman sitting in front overheard it, and would, unbeknownst to them, photograph them, posted it on Twitter, with a comment, not cool, jokes around big dongles right behind me.

And the next day, he was fired from his job. And then, as revenge, she was just destroyed. She had two years of rape threats and death threats.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re in the early days of social media, right?  Do you think all this is sort of the immaturity, so to speak, or the early period and that we might — people — we would grow out of it?

JON RONSON: I think people will grow out of it. I think right now we’re like — with social media, we’re like toddlers crawling towards a gun.

And I hope and think that my book’s going to contribute to that, because my book is like a visit to the slaughterhouse.

JEFFREY BROWN: A visit to the slaughterhouse?


I journey around the world, going into the homes of people who were destroyed as a result of the hitherto unempowered people having power, and not working out how to use it judiciously. And they’re crushed. It mangles them.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m wondering how you see your role, as an investigative, but participant. You even write in the book about having sort of, as a journalist, participated in shaming, in a sense. Right?

JON RONSON: And I’m very glad I’m not doing it anymore.


JEFFREY BROWN: You’re a reformed shamer.

JON RONSON: I’m a reformed shamer.

You know that social media is like this stage for constant artificially high dramas. Everybody’s either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. But that isn’t true about human beings. We are dimensional. And you know what?  The cure for being cast out is being brought back in with compassion and empathy. And my book is really a call for people to be more empathetic.

JEFFREY BROWN: “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”

Jon Ronson, thanks so much.

JON RONSON: Thank you.