The Real Cost of Public Shaming

Social media has modernized the world, connecting people across continents and allowing everyone to have a voice. It has also resurrected a more medieval practice: public shaming.

So-You've-Been-Publicly-Shamed-book-coverIn his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” journalist and author Jon Ronson delves into this topic, but he’s not talking about the trolls of the Internet who are ready to pounce on anyone. No, he’s talking about relatively “normal” people who, for whatever reason, resort to shaming others online.

“We kind of know what we think about trolls, they’re basically idiots,” he says. “A nice ordinary person who just loses their mind and starts tearing somebody apart, I wanted to write about those people. I was those people and we are those people.”

Ronson took the time to focus on a particular subset of people who became the targets of public shaming, but who he believes were unfairly shamed.

“People love it when you can say, ‘Look at that bad person over there, abusing their power,’” Ronson says. “We are the ones abusing our power now.”

He talks in depth with Jonah Lehrer, a former journalist who was caught fabricating quotes, and Justine Sacco, who lost her job after sending one controversial tweet that some say was meant as a joke, as well as others whose lives were changed in an instant because of public shaming. Ronson even shares his own experience with public shaming after an automated Twitter account (an infomorph) was set up in his likeness.

“This book is not an attack on social justice,” Ronson says. “This book is against the disproportionate shaming of people whoever they are. People are judged on no evidence, [get a] label of a monster on no evidence. The best thing to do about our fellow human beings is be curious, not constantly lurch towards cold hard justice.”

“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” does not excuse or defend what these people have done, but it does bring a bit of perspective. A person’s reputation can be destroyed in an instant by one social media post.

“You’re one sentence away from being Justine Sacco,” Ronson offers as a reminder.

Ronson will be talking about his book at the Chicago Humanities Festival Saturday, Oct. 31.

He promises that, although the topic can be serious, he makes sure his talks are funny and enjoyable.

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