How do we make Twitter and the internet a kinder place?

Lisa Owen finished her interview with Jon Ronson on The Nation about public shaming – see Ronson on online shaming – asking “How do we make Twitter and the internet a kinder place?”

One way to do this is to create and maintain kinder places, and I like to think that’s what we have done here with Your NZ.

Another way is to keep reminding yourself that the name or pseudonym you might feel like attacking is usually associated with a real person who is possibly much like yourself. Feelings and reactions can be difficult to exprewss and easy to ignore in cyber conversations, especially with the tight character restrictions that Twitter imposes.

Lisa Owen: how do we make Twitter and the internet a kinder place?
Well, I think conversations like this. I mean, my book came out; Monica Lewinsky came out with a TED talk which I thought was wonderful. Good, important thinkers like Glenn Greenwald are kind of jumping on it too.

And I think if— I think the best thing that can happen is if you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming going on, speak up. Say something about it. And it’s going to be no question that the shamers will turn on you, and, believe me, I’ve experienced that over the past few months, but it’s the right thing to do. Because a babble of voices talking back and forward about whether something’s deserved or not, that’s democracy.

I think that speaking up and confronting bad and nasty online behaviour is important. Sometimes it works. If you get in early you can sometimes shut down online bullying or at least swing the debate to a more even battle rather than a mob attack against one.

But it has it’s risks. I know this from experience over the past few years that I have been actively involved in blogs and to a lesser extent Twitter.

I’ve been banned from Whale Oil, Public Address and from Dim Post for speaking up against what I thought was awful, or presenting a view that ran against the forum.

I’ve been banned a number of times from The Standard. This has usually involved me standing my ground against mob attacks until the ‘moderator’ pings me for ‘disrupting the blog’ – which is exactly the intent of the attacks tactics used against me (and others, it was a common means of shutting down and kicking out alternative voices there).

Despite commenting at Kiwiblog far more than anywhere else I haven’t been banned from there, but I have also been subjected to mob attacks, some insiduous threats, either misguided or malicious ongoing criticism and deliberate lying smears lasting for months or years (Manolo is a notable resident troll).

And as a result of moderating potentially defamatory comments here on Your NZ, providing a right of reply, and confronting unsubstantiated and false accusations on Twitter I have found myself on the receiving end of some particularly insidious attention from recidivist online attackers, the full extent of which I can’t yet reveal for legal reasons but will get that story out into the sunlight if and when I’m able to.

But to make at least parts of the Internet kinder places the bullies have to be confronted and exposed, or they will keep attacking and bullying.

Thanks to those of you who have helped make Your NZ a kinder place to discuss and share things. It can be done, and if it works well it will grow and spread,

A healthy democracy needs diverse opinions openly expressed and issues robustly debated. It also requires decency, respect of others, respect of the right to disagree, and recognition of the responsibilities involved with free speech.

Good things often don’t come easily but if we keep working on it we can and will contribute to making the Internet a kinder place.

It’s worth remembering (the Bible has some wise quotes):

 “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

And the similar Mosaic law:

“Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person.”

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