Emotional Health

Book Review: ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,’ by Jon Ronson

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.




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You may remember hearing about this when it happened—I know I do. A woman named Justine Sacco was on her way from New York to South Africa to visit her family for a vacation. During a layover in London, she tweeted her small number of followers a series of awkward jokes, including one saying that she was on her way to Africa—“Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” This tweet was picked up and re-tweeted on a social media site, and before Justine had landed in Cape Town she was the number one, worldwide trending topic on Twitter. She had also been branded a racist, vilified, and had been fired from her job. Along with the frenzy of tweets that occurred while Justine slept on the plane was the schadenfreude ripple of speculation about what she would feel like when she got off her plane and realized what had happened to her. No matter that Justine, whose family was anti-apartheid, meant her tweet as an ironic comment about the different status of whites vs. blacks in Africa rather than a racist remark (though she realizes now it was ill-advised). Still, had it been kept amongst the small group of Twitter followers who knew her, that would have been understood. Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed makes the point that once something is out in cyberspace, you can’t control where it goes, who will read it, and, most important, what they will think. Social media is not just a space for teenagers to post foolish thoughts, messages, and photos of themselves—adults do it too, and, like teenagers, they too are being cyber-bullied for it.

But you’d think the adults, unlike the kids, would know better. Ronson makes the point that we adults have been slow to catch on. He himself once heralded Twitter as a place where he could post his “honest” feelings and thoughts. He has since reconsidered.

Another example he gives in his book is that of a woman named “Lindsey Stone, a 32-year-old Massachusetts woman who posed for a photograph while mocking a sign at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns. Stone had stood next to the sign, which asks for ‘Silence and Respect,’ pretending to scream and flip the bird. She and her co-worker Jamie, who posted the picture on Facebook, had a running joke about disobeying signs—smoking in front of No Smoking signs, for example—and documenting it. But shorn of this context, her picture appeared to be a joke not about a sign but about the war dead. Worse, Jamie didn’t realize that her mobile uploads were visible to the public.”

Subsequent to the picture’s going viral, Lindsay became a target across the Internet as someone who showed disrespect for our troops. In fact, she is a dedicated professional who cared for handicapped children—until, like Justine Sacco, the public Internet shaming cost her her job. In both cases, the employers wasted no time bowing to public pressure, immediately firing the two women without letting them defend themselves.

Drawing from sources such as the work of the 19th-century French sociologist Gustave le Bon, whose classic The Crowd was one of the first attempts to describe the dynamics of mass psychology, Ronson attempts to explain why the Internet has unleashed this phenomenon. Much like the dynamics of being part of a crowd, the Internet affords one a feeling of remove from one’s victim. Even if you are not anonymous (indeed, many people post their names or identities along with their attacks), not being face-to-face in an individual manner with your victim makes all the difference. Robson cites an interesting example of the opposite effect. A judge sentenced a man who had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter to walk around town with a placard reading that he had killed two people as a result of his drunken driving. Contrary to expectations, he was not shamed. Instead, people offered forgiveness, prayer, and various kinds of aid. Would it have been different had the encounters been on the Internet? Robson thinks so.

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  • Toni Myers April 20, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    A fascinating topic and excellent book review. I want to read it.
    When I hear all too frequently of someone, often a famous someone, being shamed in social media, I tend to feel sad for the person-too easy to forget one is speaking or flashing to the world unintentionally. Other times, e.g. Anthony Wiener, I think, what an idiot! We’ve not yet adapted to our radically different world, in which your life can change in a moment if you say something on media which catches fire. Anonymous commenters can be vicious and apparently delight in judging.
    Many years ago I was riveted by the story of a young Peace Corps volunteer in an African country. She sent a postcard describing the terrible conditions. It turned into an international incident and she was sent home in shame.