The Perils of Public Shaming, Crowd Psychology & Social Justice

by Ian Cooney on November 13 2015

“We want to destroy people, but we don’t want to feel bad about it.”

Jon Ronson stands on stage amongst a diverse audience of Edmontonians. As the headliner of LitFest, the Welsh author, journalist, and filmmaker is equal parts charming, soft spoken, and self deprecating.

While Ronson has gained attention thanks to his past adventures that include a strange cast of characters like the new-age extremist, David Icke, and the Faygo-obsessed horrorcore duo, Insane Clown Posse, it’s his recent book that's perhaps the most eye opening.

Written in a style that’s both scary and humorous, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed explores the effects of shaming in our hyper connected age of social media. But unlike other critics who speak about the phenomenon from a cozy chair in front of a computer screen, the majority of the book involves Ronson interviewing those who have been hurt by the backlash of their actions.

The tweet heard around the world

Perhaps the most terrifying story of shaming as it pertains to the world of digital media is the story of Justine Sacco, a 30 year old Senior Director of Corporate Communications for IAC. Like most Twitter users, Sacco used the platform as a way to entertain and inform her 170 followers.

Tweets like “Weird German Dude: You’re in first class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant—Inner monolog as I inhale BO. Thank god for pharmaceuticals.” are not too outrageous, but it was the following tweet that made her the #1 trending topic on Twitter.                                                                                                                   


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As Ronson tells the story, you can hear a trembling in his voice. Justine sent the tweet just before boarding a plane for her 11-hour trip to South Africa. As soon as she landed, Justine turned on her phone, only to see a text from an old friend:

“I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.”

At first, Justine was puzzled; she had no idea why she received this message. While sitting on the runway at Cape Town Airport, she received another text, this time from her best friend:

“You need to call me immediately. You’re the number one worldwide trend on Twitter right now.”

Justine soon discovered that during her flight, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet became an international sensation. From the sarcastic responses like “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” to the extremely disrespectful “Everyone go report this c*nt @JustineSacco,” the response to her half-baked tweet was anything but positive.  

In fact, one Twitter user even traveled to the airport and waited at the terminal to get a picture of Justine once she heard the news.


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In Shamed, Ronson mentions that “In November 2013 [Sacco] was googled thirty times. Between the 20th and the end of December, she was googled 1,220,000 times.” 

Of course, once the story became popular, companies jumped on the bandwagon in an attempt to exploit the story. Weeks after the tweet went viral, media outlets began mining her old posts to keep her in the public eye.                                                                                                                      


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According to Sacco, the tweet was “a joke about a situation that exists. Living in America puts us in a bit if a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”

Ronson points out the fact that satire is nothing new. Programs like South Park and The Daily Show thrive in popularity not because they seek to destroy, but because they’re able to hold a mirror to society's actions, allowing us to see the flaws around us. Through the use of parody, we’re able to laugh at the bizarre nature of the world in an inventive way.

Although Justine faced death and rape threats because of her tweet from people she will never meet in person, perhaps the worst thing about her story is the distortion of her reputation. People, including those in the media who are able to influence the lives of many people, have taken an iota of her life and used it as the basis of her existence.

“They’ve taken my name and my picture, and have created this Justine Sacco that’s not me and have labeled this person a racist,” said Justine. “I have this fear that if I were in a car accident tomorrow and lost my memory and came back and googled myself, that would be the new reality.”

The snowflake and the avalanche

It’s safe to say that we’ve all sent a message out into the ether that we weren’t proud of, but why did Sacco get singled out? Was it because of her position in society? Did she “abuse her white privilege?” Perhaps these are all themes we’ve loosely cobbled together to form the story we tell ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, to ignore the larger picture.

In psychology, deindividuation is used to describe what happens when individuals lose their self-awareness when part of a group. We like to believe that we’re always rational decision makers, but once we get involved with a crowd, we tend to act in accordance with everyone else.

We can point to cases of this hivemind mentality using examples like protesting and mass looting, but this also happens online. We think we’re banning together to hold those wrongdoers accountable, but we’re actually dog piling on a subject for which we have no context. Even though there could be hundreds or thousands of us “fighting for what’s right,” we see ourselves as David and never as Goliath.

This onslaught of shame is only made worse thanks to the deliberate manufacturing of new stories. Sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and ViralNova have changed the way we consume online content because of the highs and lows they put us through. In no time at all, they’ve become distributors of emotion as we cling to their every post that ends with “You’ll never guess what happened next.” This style of reporting has skyrocketed their revenues, alerting the attention of traditional media outlets who are scrambling to compete in the attention economy.

In an article titled “Outrage Porn: How the Need for ‘Perpetual Indignation’ Manufactures Phony Offense” author Ryan Holiday explains how news outlets have a habit of making a mountain out of a molehill. To quote his piece, “Catching someone being racist or homophobic or misogynistic (or more likely, just old and dumb), accusing someone of being unfair, filming a mayor driving over the speed limit, and pointing out privilege are all great things to be outraged by or to “shame” people for. And that’s why they’re staples of the current media scene.”

But are any of us truly affected by someone else’s consequences? We’ve become what Ronson refers to as “unpaid shame interns,” cathartically expressing these types of mindless message to those who follow us instead of figuring out the full story of what happened.


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...and social justice for all                                                                                             

The term “social justice warrior” is used as a pejorative to describe those who value fairness over everything and are easily offended. If you’ve ever seen someone using the dubious claim that “women make 77 cents for every dollar men make” in an argument or shout phrases like “appropriation” and “check your privilege” like they are pleasantries, you might be dealing with a SJW. This class of Internet users tote themselves as being experts in all things involving gender, race, religion, and politics, yet have no experience with such concepts. Some of their most common tactics include aggressive dog piling, witch-hunt-style tirades and ad hominem attacks.

While Shamed might come across as an attempt to hold these people responsible for their actions, Ronson says that isn’t the case. He is merely showing us another side of the story that isn’t talked about: the repercussions of shaming in our social media world.  As someone who identifies as being pro-social justice, he argues that it does have benefits. The issue arises when people abuse their power and prefer to chase a false sense of “revenge.”

We like to think that social media is a tool that has evened the playing field by giving each user the right to speak their mind and express themselves, but this isn’t the case. It’s become what Ronson calls a “mutual approval machine,” the complete opposite of the democratic system. As Ronson eloquently states, “We want things to be fair, but only when other people are at an advantage.”  

What’s even worse is that these stories shared on our Facebook and Twitter pages aren’t an accurate representation of the world’s beliefs and opinions. There’s a good chance that you’re friends with someone on Facebook because you share a similar interest. You might have gone to the same school, worked at the same company, played on the same team, and/or have similar interests (music, movies, arts, etc.) Because you self-select who you connect with, you fall victim to the confirmation bias: the tendency to find, interpret, and favour ideas that you believe are true while ignoring counterarguments or alternatives that may conflict with your perspective.


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Putting it all together

As communicators and marketers who speak for our clients, what does this all mean?

Every message, post, tweet, and story we send out is nuanced. Although we're able to control the words we use, we have no say on how it’ll be interpreted. While this might be cause for concern, it's the least of our worries.  

Elbert Hubbard once said “To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” He couldn't be more correct. We cannot live our lives in fear because our actions have the unintended consequence of upseting others. The problem with the rise of social justice is that suddenly everyone has an opinion, even the uninformed. This leads to a never ending cycle of biases, heuristics and other subjective, reactive-style perspectives. Instead of automatically assessing people with labels, we should do our best to determine why they think what they think and how they came to their conclusion. Ronson even mentions our obsession with events that are trivial at best:


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Most books end with a conclusion that ties up all of the loose ends, but Shamed doesn’t give us that same closure. Ronson finishes the book with an analogy from a friend on the current state of social mediaa fitting statement that reflects the funhouse, mirror-esque world where people see us in a distorted setting:  

“I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment, he said. It’s horrible.”

To learn more about Jon Ronson and So You've Been Publically Shamed, pick up the book on Amazon


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