Jon Ronson’s New York Times piece on what happened to people who tweeted something obnoxious or immoral, and who had their reputations destroyed by social-media shaming, is must reading. He focuses on Justine Sacco, the Manhattan PR executive who was en route to visit family in South Africa when she tweeted from Heathrow a wisecrack about how she won’t get AIDS there, because she’s white.
It was, she says, her lame attempt to poke fun at the bubble of privilege Westerners live in. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but whatever the truth, thanks to Twitter, by the time she landed in South Africa, her reputation was in tatters. Her family in South Africa, supporters of the ANC, accused her of ruining the family’s reputation. Turns out there are others like her. Ronson writes:
In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it. The journalist A. A. Gill once wrote a column about shooting a baboon on safari in Tanzania: “I’m told they can be tricky to shoot. They run up trees, hang on for grim life. They die hard, baboons. But not this one. A soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out.” Gill did the deed because he “wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger.”
I was among the first people to alert social media. (This was because Gill always gave my television documentaries bad reviews, so I tended to keep a vigilant eye on things he could be got for.) Within minutes, it was everywhere. Amid the hundreds of congratulatory messages I received, one stuck out: “Were you a bully at school?”
Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.
Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns. So 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.
Consider this poor soul:
I met a man who, in early 2013, had been sitting at a conference for tech developers in Santa Clara, Calif., when a stupid joke popped into his head. It was about the attachments for computers and mobile devices that are commonly called dongles. He murmured the joke to his friend sitting next to him, he told me. “It was so bad, I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “Something about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle, a ridiculous dongle. . . . It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.”
Moments later, he half-noticed when a woman one row in front of them stood up, turned around and took a photograph. He thought she was taking a crowd shot, so he looked straight ahead, trying to avoid ruining her picture. It’s a little painful to look at the photograph now, knowing what was coming.
The woman had, in fact, overheard the joke. She considered it to be emblematic of the gender imbalance that plagues the tech industry and the toxic, male-dominated corporate culture that arises from it. She tweeted the picture to her 9,209 followers with the caption: “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” Ten minutes later, he and his friend were taken into a quiet room at the conference and asked to explain themselves. Two days later, his boss called him into his office, and he was fired.
“I packed up all my stuff in a box,” he told me. (Like Stone and Sacco, he had never before talked on the record about what happened to him. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid further damaging his career.) “I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears, but” — he paused — “when I got in the car with my wife I just. . . . I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”
For a dorky joke like that! Turns out the woman whose tweet got him fired was herself fired after the social-media mob turned on her and made her life hell. Un-freaking-believable.
Read the whole thing. Think about it. Is it worth having a Twitter account if this can happen to you?
Obsessive-compulsive message hygiene by the big parties encourages a puritanical media hunt for specks of inconsistency and deviation. Then mainstream debate becomes sterile and the fringe more fertile. We cherish free speech but have become tyrannically unforgiving of the misspoken word. There is no benefit of the doubt, no concession for an honest motive poorly executed. It is meant as a defence against dishonesty and hypocrisy. But when the presumption takes hold that all players are hiding their true selves, politics becomes a parlour game where the aim is to trip your opponent so their mask slips.
Then, when nationalist demagogues arrive on the scene with an agenda that history has shown to be divisive and sinister yet also seductive when portrayed as the antidote to a corrupt establishment, what happens? The mainstream parties and commentators say: “It is a facade behind which lurks something ugly. These people blow a dog-whistle. They say one thing but mean another.” And the response, dangerously plausible, comes back: “No, it is you who wear the masks and speak in codes. We are the plain speakers and the unmaskers.”
Ever seen this astonishing performance by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband? This is what the Grauniad is talking about: