Ronson on online shaming

Welshman Jon Ronson was interviewed on The Nation yesterday about personal attacks and ‘public shaming’ online.

Welsh writer Jon Ronson spent three years tracking down victims of public online shaming.

His latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed looks at what happens after the flurry of tweets and posts sweep through cyberspace.

JonRonsonThe interview begins:

Lisa Owen interviews Jon Ronson, author of ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

Lisa Owen: It’s a phenomenon of the digital age.. online-shaming. But what happens after the flurry of outraged tweets and posts sweeps through cyberspace? Award-winning writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson spent three years travelling the world to find out. The result was his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”. I caught up with Ronson in Brisbane and asked what prompted his interest in the dark side of social media.

Jon Ronson: I guess in the early days of social media, I was a bit of a shamer like everybody else. You know, I’d tear somebody apart for stepping out of line. And then it wouldn’t even cross my mind to wonder whether the people I’d destroyed or helped to destroy were okay or were in ruins. And I thought, you know, ‘This isn’t necessarily who I want to be,’ because I felt that no longer were we shaming people who deserved it; it’s no longer were we doing social justice.

What we had started doing instead was tabbing into private individuals, who had done almost nothing wrong; just, kind of, made a joke that came out badly on Twitter. And it was like we had lost a capacity for empathy, and also lost our capacity to distinguish between serious and unserious transgressions.

So it suddenly felt really important to me that I would go around the world and meet the people that we had destroyed to rehumanise them, I guess.

I do want to ask the ‘why’ question, then, because people seem to act very differently online than what they would if they spoke to you face to face. So why do you think that is?

Well, I think there’s a number of reasons. I think, obviously, the drone strike operator doesn’t need to think about the village that he’s just blown up, and on the internet, we’re like drone strike operators. And also, I think the snowflake doesn’t need to feel responsible for the avalanche.

So if hundreds of thousands of people are tearing about a single person, we don’t need to feel responsible for it. And also, we play this, kind of, psychological tricks on ourselves.

We think, ‘Okay, that person we just destroyed, I’m sure they’re fine now.’

Or we think, ‘That person we just destroyed, oh, they’re probably a sociopath.’ So we’re constantly coming up with psychological tricks to make ourselves feel not so bad about destroying people.

Or trying to destroy people, trying to destroy their reputations or their credibility.

This is pertinent to New Zealand because I’ve seen what he talked about happening frequently online involving New Zealanders, often Involving mob attacks.

It’s not just mob attacks, sometimes blogs or individuals sustain attacks for months or years on people. Sometimes politicians are the targets, like Helen Clark and John Key in particular – the bigger they are the bigger the attempted fall.

This happens on Twitter and Facebook. It is done by blogs, notably Whale Oil and Lauda Finem to the extent sometimes of ongoing smear campaigns that can amount to alleged and actual defamation. And it has been done within comments threads, I’ve seen it often in the past on Kiwiblog and The Standard, usually done by resident trolls.

Sometimes the attacks are done openly by known identties, sometimes by people hiding behind pseudonyms.

It can be very difficult for the targets of the abuse to do anything about, and it can potentially and actually be very damaging.

Sometimes it has resulted in court action, either as a defence against attacks or as an additional means of attack. Recently Colin Craig took it to extraordinary lengths by letter box dropping a booklet across the country.

Overseas examples are worse than I’ve seen here…

I want to use and talk about an example from your book – a woman who shamed two IT workers, who- she shamed them on Twitter; they were telling rude jokes at a conference. One of the guys lost their job. And then what happened was Twitter turned on her. And the tweets said things like, ‘Cut out her uterus. Kill her. F… the bitch. Make her pay.’ And someone even described shooting her in the head, close-range. I mean, these were apparently everyday people, weren’t they, saying these things?

Everyday people – I mean, when you get to the heart of, like, why people are shamed on social media, it seems to be always people who are perceived to have misused their privilege. So one of them lost his job, and then she, in shaming them, was perceived to have misused her privilege, like she had publicly shamed these two men to her 12,000 Twitter followers or whatever, so people just, sort of, tore her apart.

Even worse, actually, because when you are a woman in a shaming, the range of insults is way worse. You know, when a man is shamed it’s, ‘I’m going to get you fired.’ When a woman shamed it’s, ‘I’m going to rape you and cut out your uterus,’ and so on. But the problem here is the misuse of privilege.

…but what happens in New Zealand is shameful nevertheless.

On Jon Ronson (Wikipedia):

Jon Ronson (born 10 May 1967) is a Welsh journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and radio presenter whose works include the best-selling The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004). He has been described as a gonzo journalist,[2] becoming something of a faux-naïf character himself in his stories.[3]

He is known for his informal but sceptical investigations of controversial fringe politics and science.

Video:Interview: Jon Ronson on public shaming:

Full transcript at Scoop: Lisa Owen interviews Jon Ronson

Leave a comment


  1. Ronson seems to ignore the very valuable role social media can play in securing justice, when the justice system shows itself to be powerless to do so:

    • Yes, social justice isn important and this can be achieved online.

      But there’s also a risk that social justice warriors take things too far and become accusers, judges, juries and executioners. And this happens. There are some prominent people involved in New Zealand social media who’s potential power has gone to their heads and they have overused and abused it.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  8th November 2015

    The world is full of idiots. Be very selective in the company you keep.

    I’ve followed that principle from an early age and never had cause to regret it.

    • kittycatkin

       /  8th November 2015

      And remember that anything you put online may not only be seen by the person it’s intended to be seen by. I cannot understand why anyone puts nude or worse images of themselves out there. Bleating that the recipient shouldn’t show them to anyone else is incredibly naive. We have all betrayed a confidence, I imagine,even if it’s nothing like that in magnitude.

  3. Hi Pete, yes, Giovanni Tiso’s attacks on Cameron Slater come to mind – one may disagree with Slater’s position on an issue, for sure; but trying to take out the guys advertising income by contacting the advertisers directly, and lobbying them to cease ad spend, which has a direct effect on Slaters family, just because he voices an alternative opinion? Way, way too far in my opinion.

    • I agree Steve.

      When Tiso started his camopaign against RadioLive advertisers over Roastbusters I initally supported what he was doing.

      Then he carried it on and I believe took it too far. I challenged him on it and he didn’t react well.

  1. How do we make Twitter and the internet a kinder place? | Your NZ

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