'Publicly Shamed:' Who Needs The Pillory When We've Got Twitter? Host Steve Inskeep explores modern-day humiliation with writer Jon Ronson, whose new book So You've Been Publicly Shamed digs into the lives of people who've been raked over the coals on social media.
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'Publicly Shamed:' Who Needs The Pillory When We've Got Twitter?

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'Publicly Shamed:' Who Needs The Pillory When We've Got Twitter?

'Publicly Shamed:' Who Needs The Pillory When We've Got Twitter?

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The writer Jon Ronson has spent a lot of time tracking people who have been shamed. They've been ferociously attacked on social media for what they said there - transgressions that are sometimes minor, sometimes major. Ronson says his own anxiety levels shot up while he was writing about the victims of public ridicule.

JON RONSON: My book has a kind of panicky, heart-racing quality to it, I think, when people read it but in a positive way because I wanted to say, look, OK, if we're going to go to carry on just destroying people for nothing, this is what it feels like.

INSKEEP: Ronson's new book is called "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." I asked him what he meant by shaming.

RONSON: I'm talking specifically about the disproportionate punishment of people who really didn't do very much wrong - this weird surveillance society that we've created for ourselves since the advent of social media. I think we're trying to define each other by the worst tweet we ever wrote. We're trying to see people's tweets as, like, a kind of clue to their inherent evil, even though we know that that's not how human beings actually are.

INSKEEP: Remind us, if you can, of one of the rather famous examples that you begin this book with.

RONSON: Well, one is a woman called Justine Sacco, who had 170 Twitter followers. She was going to South Africa for the holidays, and just before she got on the plane, she tweeted, going to Africa, hope I don't get AIDS, just kidding, I'm white. So she got on the plane and fell asleep and then woke up in Cape Town and turned on her phone to see a text from somebody she hadn't spoken to since high school that said I am so sorry to see what's happening to you right now. And while she slept, her tweet went around the world, and her life was destroyed.

INSKEEP: I am remembering being on Twitter when this was happening. And people were talking about how horrible she was and how she was going to have quite a reaction when the plane landed. This was happening in real time.

RONSON: Yeah. This was the hilarity of it - that she was asleep and oblivious to her destruction and how hilarious that was. By the way, her tweet wasn't intended to be racist. It was supposed to be in the tradition of people mocking privilege by taking the position of privilege, like Randy Newman has done and like "South Park" has done. I think the difference between them and her is that she just wasn't very good at it. Not being good at it and being oblivious to her destruction was enough to just, you know, turn this into a hurricane.

INSKEEP: You tell a story of two people whom I had not heard of before but were momentarily famous. You give them names here Hank and Adria, Hank being a pseudonym for one of the two people here. What did they do?

RONSON: Well, Hank was in the audience at a tech conference in Santa Clara. And he whispered a kind of "Beavis & Butthead"-type joke to his friend, a kind of tech in-joke about big dongles. You can imagine, you know...

INSKEEP: A sexist joke, OK.

RONSON: Yeah. So the woman sitting in front turned around and took a photograph. And then 10 minutes later, he was called into an office and told that there had been a complaint about sexual comments. And he apologized, and that was that. But it turned out that the way that she had communicated her complaint to the conference organizers was in the form of a public tweet. So she took a photograph of him and his friend, published the photograph on Twitter with something saying, not cool, jokes about big dongles right behind me. So the next day, Hank was fired, which was obviously crushing. And he posted a message saying I was fired today. You know, I'm sorry for what I did, and I'm sorry that my comments upset Adria. But I was let go from work today, and I've got three children, and she just turned around and smiled and sealed my fate.

INSKEEP: Now, this is the amazing thing because it's about to go to a whole new level at this point.

RONSON: Right. A large number of strangers decided to involve themselves in this story. And so it started getting discussed on a meeting place for trolls called for 4chan /b/. And people were saying, you know, a father of three is out of a job because of some innocuous comment was overheard by this woman with more power than sense. Let's crucify her. And she was inundated with death threats. And every aspect of her life was being discussed by strangers. Her company was attacked with what's known as a DDoS attack. So it's like a malicious program where their servers become overwhelmed. And then she was fired from her job.

INSKEEP: I've read entire articles about online trolls, people who attack other people online. I mean, it's been psychoanalyzed. It's been described as a form of mental illness. Did you get a chance to talk any hard-core trolls?

RONSON: I did, yeah. And actually, it was interesting with the Hank and Adria story. So they saw themselves as having a moral code. They would use this extreme, outrageous language but within, from their perspective, a place of morality. Actually, I asked a female troll, a woman called Mercedes, why so many shaming campaigns were so breathtakingly misogynistic. You know, Hank never got any death threats or rape threats. And Adria was inundated with rape threats. And she said, yeah, it is a bit extreme. She said 4chan takes the worst thing that it can imagine that person going through and shouts for that to happen.

INSKEEP: So how would you judge the average troll?

RONSON: Well, in some ways I think focusing one's attention on trolls is kind of taking the easy way out because Justine Sacco, the woman I talked about earlier, the AIDS tweet woman - some trolls powered into her. She got plenty of rape threats and death threats. But it wasn't trolls who destroyed her. It was good people like us. It was nice people, empathetic people trying to do good. It was hundreds of thousands of empathetic people. That's what destroyed Justine Sacco. I think self-righteous people who powered into Justine Sacco, robbing her joke of its nuance and just trying to destroy her because they wanted to be seen as like a kind of Rosa Parks. But of course they weren't because there was nothing brave about it. They're more frightening, actually, than trolls.

INSKEEP: Jon Ronson is the author of "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." Thanks very much.

RONSON: Thank you, Steve.

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