Public shaming and modern media

Jon Ronson has an adaptation excerpt from his latest book age out public shaming in the digital age. It primarily revolves around Justine Sacco, who you might remember as sending out that racist/unfunny Tweet.

Ronson writes:

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc.


By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke.


For the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.

At the time, I wrote about why Sacco’s Tweet wasn’t the worst part about the whole affair (and was subsequently quoted in the New York Times, when they wrote about this same issue): I was horrified by the reactions to it – and, mainly, how she was targeted by those with much larger platforms.

There’s an ethical dimension many haven’t considered with platforms and engagements: It’s difficult and tricky areas. I engage publicly on social media with people, quite often – but always with people who have anonymous accounts and aren’t traceable in any way. I don’t even try show up legitimate problematic individuals, unless they are threatening the livelihood and safety of others: if it’s just some loser Gamergater or MRA, I tend to just block, though inform others of the individual.

The point is it’s tricky and it should be tricky. Shaming shouldn’t be as easy as a Retweet, but it is and that’s dangerous. Platform holders like the Buzzfeed editors and Gawker’s Sam Biddle who thrive on public shaming deserve severe ethical scrutiny for their work and conduct.

Indeed, Sacco isn’t the one who should be ashamed; it’s those with major platforms who decided to draw the world’s attention to her, for her innocuous and clearly outrageous Tweet.

So you see a racist Tweet…

How should we respond to awful posts on social media? Spoiler alert: I don’t know, but I think we can do better – overall – if we don’t always reply quickly, grounding our responses with what is best for others. Not what feels right at that moment. In my latest post for TBD, I use the example of a Tweet that directly targets people like me – “foreign-named”, darker skinned, etc. – and reflect on what I’d actually like to see more of.

Spoiler: It’s not abusive messages sent to the random kid who made the racist Tweet.

Read it at The Daily Beast

On the ethics of public shaming & digital mob justice

I wrote a post for the New Statesman on using public shaming and digital “mob justice” – even when aimed at those people we consider to be wrong. I’m unconvinced of public shaming as a tactic, in terms of “justice” – since one would hope that enforcing justice is itself considered in moral terms; that we don’t assume moral immunity because we’re responding to an injustice, but rather maintaining morality even while maintaining justice – in an unjust and often horrible world.

I don’t doubt public shaming is effective – but efficacy must be measured alongside other perhaps equally effective, but more moral responses and so on. My concern is that we can’t control how others respond and this is especially telling when original offences – say making a racist joke – is less bad than responses – calls for raping the offender.

There’s a lot to focus on, but this currently is my position regarding public shaming. It doesn’t mean we never act, only act better.

Justine Sacco wasn’t the biggest problem about her Twitter storm UPDATE

Over at Big Think, I argued that Sacco’s apparent racism – or rather, her racist Tweet – was probably the least worrying part of her whole “Twitter storm”. What worried me and continues to worry me are our default responses to people and how we caricature, so we can attack, convey pure bile, and do little to actually advance cause or thought.

I didn’t see evidence of rape or death threats at Sacco, though I did look. If you know of any, please let me know below.

I’d like to see more silence than noise online, especially when something makes us angry. That default to convey that anger publicly should be considered: you don’t get a free pass to say and do what you like just because you’re justifiably angry: I argued this about the Elan Gale case. We should stop this being our default and, if there’s a competition for response, it shouldn’t be about who’s the nastiest or most “hardcore”: it should be who’s the smartest and most effective in combating the mindset causing you (justifiable) anger.

I would be terrified of being the target of a Twitter storm: we mess up in various ways and there’s no one to actually shut off or calm down the masses of the moral march. Even if you said something stupid or idiotic, the response is disproportional as you are one person and they are legion. This is inherently unfair. And that’s another reason I worry.

Updated: Thanks to commenter “oolon” below for links showing threats.

Please note my comment policy before commenting, unless you love the taste of Banhammer.

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On that fake Paris Hilton Tweet

I scold Twitter. Again. Because apparently me and social media are like mortal enemies – or rather online conduct is.

Over at Big Think, I convey why it’s troublesome – both in terms of our conduct online and another area that is related: how we treat celebrities. I dislike the victim-blaming language of “they asked for it” by virtue of being celebrities, in terms of receiving flak and animosity and stalking and whatnot.

I really, really dislike being nasty to innocent, harmless people – even if they are famous.

Suicide, stigma and social media

A US sports analyst chartered his decision to commit suicide.

He didn’t have any of the usual reasons people commit suicide: ill-health, losing autonomy, etc; it was made rationally (as rationally as is possible in such circumstances), on his 60th birthday, and done to prevent any chance of deterioration.

After reading about, I recognised how it touched on a number of themes relating to social media, the way we document our lives, the way some have documented their deaths and what this could mean for reducing suicide and its stigma.

I examined it more in the Guardian.

(Comments are closed on it, unfortunately.)



Outrage, social media and knee-jerk responses

I have a new post up at the Guardian that you can go and fight with.


I quite like this piece by Laura Hudson at Wired on when the bullied becomes the bullies in the age of social media.

I think it’s a difficult discussion and, though I like the article, I’m not sure how far I agree. Probably about *sucks thumb* 90%.

As should be obvious from my Guardian piece, I am worried about the kinds of reactions we have; the sort of horrible name-calling, derision, threats, and pile-ons that can occur – even for a good cause.

After all, we don’t have licence to, for example, threaten homophobes with death. (I wouldn’t want to associate with anyone that did that, which would undermine the cause itself.)

To think we’re immune in our responses because we’re on the moral side is a dangerous precedent, I think. Just because we’re morally right in our position doesn’t make automatically morally right in whatever way we respond.

No, it’s not the 17th century

Sometimes I think this magical box I type on is from the future, because the world outside remains afraid of falling off the edge, gods throwing lightning, witches’ flying limits, and alien lizard monsters. For example, this isn’t from the 17th century:

A Norwegian woman who was given a prison sentence for extramarital sex after she had reported being raped while on a visit to Dubai has been pardoned and told she is free to leave the country.

No, that’s from earlier today.

[Deborah] Dalelv alleged that she was raped in March by a colleague, but was charged with having sex outside marriage after going to the police.

As is a trend with women and conservative Islamic world-views, as seen in Dubai, women having sex with anyone that’s not her Allah-annointed, usually significantly older, Manhusbander is seen as “sex outside of marriage”.

Well, yessss. But that’s an ill-considered definition of this rape. Sure a woman was harmed, assaulted, and suffered but come on: She had sex with someone who hasn’t her husband!

No question of whether it was consensual; no question of whether she was harmed. The focus is on the fact that it wasn’t her husband. Of course, if her husband raped her, we know that marital rape is sometimes not equated with rape.

Women are not persons, here: they’re breeding factories run by a single owner. They’re walking wombs.

This should not be happening and thankfully we are more aware of when it does, so we can warn, avoid and fight against it.

And yet it will continue. Just look at the obsession – yes, including my own on Twitter for mockery purposes – with Kate Middleton’s breeding.

Jason Schreier captured my perspective

Let’s be clear: We’re targeting not really the Royal Family – who might be perfectly nice people – but the weird fact that people care. That the Daily Beast still has a section on its site dedicated to the Monarchy – and not in an historic sense – adds to this.

Sometimes I think we invented fast-traveling, instantaneous information technology for the wrong species. But when I’m made aware of horror stories like Dalelv’s, I can only hope that being more aware might add to us being more pro-active in combating this very stupid views.

UPDATE: Ophelia just posted a more extensive post on Dalelv’s case.