Book review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I was deeply attracted by how Ronson conveys his messages after flipping through his book. It was an interesting read, written in a story-telling manner. He tells stories of those he has met and views the stories from the perspective of the victims. His writing does not advocate against cyber humiliation, instead he portrays the underlying danger ahead of us that is brought upon by daily progression of a technology advancement. He also provides a platform for readers to critically walk in the shoes of the victims of cyber violence.

Ronson started off by narrating his experience being a “cyber criminal”. In January 2012, Ronson found out that a Twitter account named @jon_ronson, was impersonating him (his twitter account is @jonronson). Three academicians were behind the fake account. One of them – Luke Robert Manson explained that it was an infomorph[1] for “repurposing social media data”. He then met with the academicians to seek clarification. During the meeting, the academicians refused to take down the fake account, claiming that Ronson should not be disturbed by that as the Internet is not a real world. Ronson clarified that the fake account had misrepresented and annoyed him. The meeting was recorded and later uploaded by Ronson to Youtube.[2] The video subsequently attracted hateful comments against the academicians, one of which read “these fucked up academics deserve to die painfully”. The comments generally criticised the academicians as thieves, stealing Ronson’s personal identity. Consequently, the shamed academicians took down the fake account.

Following the above incidence, Ronson then decided to evaluate real life stories related to public shaming, both online and offline by looking at stories from other victims including Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone. A similarity these victims share is that they have done something that is, to some extent, inappropriate to majority. For example, Jonah Lehrer, an author of three best-sellers, was revealed in 2012 and 2013 of plagiarism and fabrication. This drew heavy criticisms against him and two of his published books were recalled.

Ronson noted that in all the cases he studied, those cyber-warriors might have thought that they fought for justice but consequently the victims’ lives were ruined by these attacks. Reconciling the studies with his own experience, he noted that in his situation, those ruined lives were the academicians that operated his fake Twitter account.

At this stage, Ronson continued to defend the act of public shaming in righting wrongs. He came across a teenager, Mike Hubacek, who killed two people while drunk driving. Hubacek was sentenced by Ted Poe, a then Texas District Judge nationally known for his public shaming sentences, to carry a sign admitting what he has done once a month for 10 years in public. Ronson then interviewed Poe and concluded that online shamings are far more frightening than Poe’s practice; on the internet, an accused has no basic right as one does in courts. Further, the borderless nature of Internet amplifies the “sentence”, with the “judges” remain anonymous. Again, here resurfaces the ongoing debate for decades – technology brings more harm or good?

Ronson later studied the famous psychological experiment designed by Philip Zimbardo in a Stanford prison experiment.[3] The experiment involved volunteers acting as guards and prisoners. In the experiment, the volunteers adopted their respective roles quickly and easily; the guards implemented authoritarian and abusive measures in dealing with the prisoners while the prisoners accepted the torture passively. The guards, as requested by Zimbardo, did not address the prisoners by name but by numbers labelled on them. Meanwhile, some of the prisoners harassed the other prisoners as instructed by the guards, the harassers readily adopt the social roles they are expected to play. Zimbardo noticed that when a person is immersed in norms which are not his personal practice as in with the harassers, he will lose his personal identity and accordingly adapt to the surrounding circumstances. Based on the experiment, Zimbardo concluded that surrounding conditions, rather than individual personalities, have greater impact on how one behaves.

If we follow Zimbardo’s conclusion, online shaming/cyber violence can be concluded as a form of herd behaviour. Unfortunately, this conclusion from the experiment does not fit in cases related to cyber violence; as the writer found that those who shame victims are confident that they are doing good – the shaming is not due to the external circumstances, it is a deed in the shamer’s mind, done for good of the society.

Righting wrongs is a responsibility that must be shouldered with care. Wrongs are fragile. At times, we enjoy walking in our own shoes so much so that we forget that there are always two sides to every coin. I personally like this book and would recommend it to those who appreciates different sides of a story. To be able to look at different perspectives and critically analyse it, is a personal strength; to a society, it is a key to develop a loving and caring environment.

[1] An infomorph is a virtual body of information that may possess emergent features such as personality. The term was coined in Charles Platt’s 1991 novel The Silicon Man, where it refers to a single biological consciousness transferred into a computer through a process of mind transfer. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infomorph

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_901272&feature=iv&src_vid=qymiXwps97s&v=mPUjvP-4Xaw

[3] http://www.prisonexp.org/

 


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