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Jon Ronson: When online shaming goes too far

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Twitter gives a voice to the voiceless, a way to speak up and hit back at perceived injustice. But sometimes, says Jon Ronson, things go too far. In a jaw-dropping story of how one un-funny tweet ruined a woman's life and career, Ronson shows how online commenters can end up behaving like a baying mob -- and says it's time to rethink how we interact online.

- Writer and filmmaker
Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary filmmaker who dips into every flavor of madness, extremism and obsession. Full bio

In the early days of Twitter,
it was like a place of radical de-shaming.
00:12
People would admit
shameful secrets about themselves,
00:17
and other people would say,
"Oh my God, I'm exactly the same."
00:20
Voiceless people realized
that they had a voice,
00:24
and it was powerful and eloquent.
00:27
If a newspaper ran some racist
or homophobic column,
00:30
we realized we could do
something about it.
00:35
We could get them.
00:37
We could hit them with a weapon
that we understood but they didn't --
00:39
a social media shaming.
00:42
Advertisers would withdraw
their advertising.
00:45
When powerful people
misused their privilege,
00:48
we were going to get them.
00:51
This was like the
democratization of justice.
00:54
Hierarchies were being leveled out.
00:57
We were going to do things better.
00:59
Soon after that, a disgraced
pop science writer called Jonah Lehrer --
01:02
he'd been caught plagiarizing
and faking quotes,
01:06
and he was drenched in shame
and regret, he told me.
01:10
And he had the opportunity
01:13
to publicly apologize
at a foundation lunch.
01:15
This was going to be the most
important speech of his life.
01:19
Maybe it would win him some salvation.
01:22
He knew before he arrived
01:25
that the foundation was going to be
live-streaming his event,
01:26
but what he didn't know
until he turned up,
01:29
was that they'd erected a giant screen
Twitter feed right next to his head.
01:31
(Laughter)
01:36
Another one in a monitor screen
in his eye line.
01:38
I don't think the foundation did this
because they were monstrous.
01:40
I think they were clueless:
I think this was a unique moment
01:44
when the beautiful naivety of Twitter
01:47
was hitting the increasingly
horrific reality.
01:49
And here were some of the Tweets
that were cascading into his eye line,
01:53
as he was trying to apologize:
01:57
"Jonah Lehrer, boring us
into forgiving him."
01:58
(Laughter)
02:02
And, "Jonah Lehrer has not proven
that he is capable of feeling shame."
02:03
That one must have been written
by the best psychiatrist ever,
02:08
to know that about such
a tiny figure behind a lectern.
02:12
And, "Jonah Lehrer is just
a frigging sociopath."
02:16
That last word is a very human thing
to do, to dehumanize the people we hurt.
02:19
It's because we want to destroy people
but not feel bad about it.
02:25
Imagine if this was an actual court,
02:30
and the accused was in the dark,
begging for another chance,
02:32
and the jury was yelling out,
02:35
"Bored! Sociopath!"
02:37
(Laughter)
02:40
You know, when we watch
courtroom dramas, we tend to identify
02:41
with the kindhearted defense attorney,
02:44
but give us the power,
and we become like hanging judges.
02:47
Power shifts fast.
02:51
We were getting Jonah because he was
perceived to have misused his privilege,
02:54
but Jonah was on the floor then,
and we were still kicking,
02:58
and congratulating ourselves
for punching up.
03:02
And it began to feel weird and empty
when there wasn't a powerful person
03:05
who had misused their privilege
that we could get.
03:09
A day without a shaming
began to feel like a day
03:13
picking fingernails and treading water.
03:16
Let me tell you a story.
03:21
It's about a woman called Justine Sacco.
03:23
She was a PR woman from New York
with 170 Twitter followers,
03:26
and she'd Tweet little
acerbic jokes to them,
03:30
like this one on a plane
from New York to London:
03:33
[Weird German Dude: You're in first class.
It's 2014. Get some deodorant."
03:37
-Inner monologue as inhale BO.
Thank god for pharmaceuticals.]
03:40
So Justine chuckled to herself,
and pressed send, and got no replies,
03:44
and felt that sad feeling that we all feel
03:47
when the Internet doesn't
congratulate us for being funny.
03:49
(Laughter)
03:53
Black silence when the Internet
doesn't talk back.
03:54
And then she got to Heathrow,
and she had a little time to spare
03:58
before her final leg, so she thought up
another funny little acerbic joke:
04:01
[Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS.
Just kidding. I'm white!]
04:06
And she chuckled to herself, pressed send,
got on the plane, got no replies,
04:10
turned off her phone, fell asleep,
04:16
woke up 11 hours later,
04:19
turned on her phone while the plane
was taxiing on the runway,
04:21
and straightaway there was
a message from somebody
04:24
that she hadn't spoken
to since high school,
04:27
that said, "I am so sorry
to see what's happening to you."
04:29
And then another message
from a best friend,
04:35
"You need to call me right now.
04:37
You are the worldwide number one
trending topic on Twitter."
04:39
(Laughter)
04:43
What had happened is that one
of her 170 followers had sent the Tweet
04:46
to a Gawker journalist, and he
retweeted it to his 15,000 followers:
04:49
[And now, a funny holiday joke
from IAC's PR boss]
04:55
And then it was like a bolt of lightning.
04:57
A few weeks later, I talked
to the Gawker journalist.
04:59
I emailed him and asked him how it felt,
and he said, "It felt delicious."
05:02
And then he said,
"But I'm sure she's fine."
05:06
But she wasn't fine,
because while she slept,
05:09
Twitter took control of her life
and dismantled it piece by piece.
05:12
First there were the philanthropists:
05:19
[If @JustineSacco's unfortunate
words ... bother you,
05:21
join me in supporting
@CARE's work in Africa.]
05:24
[In light of ... disgusting,
racist tweet, I'm donating to @care today]
05:26
Then came the beyond horrified:
05:30
[... no words for that horribly disgusting
racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco.
05:31
I am beyond horrified.]
05:35
Was anybody on Twitter
that night? A few of you.
05:36
Did Justine's joke overwhelm
your Twitter feed the way it did mine?
05:39
It did mine, and I thought
what everybody thought that night,
05:42
which was, "Wow, somebody's screwed!
05:45
Somebody's life is about to get terrible!"
05:48
And I sat up in my bed,
05:50
and I put the pillow behind my head,
05:52
and then I thought, I'm not entirely sure
that joke was intended to be racist.
05:55
Maybe instead of gleefully
flaunting her privilege,
06:00
she was mocking the gleeful
flaunting of privilege.
06:03
There's a comedy tradition of this,
06:05
like South Park or Colbert
or Randy Newman.
06:07
Maybe Justine Sacco's crime was not being
as good at it as Randy Newman.
06:11
In fact, when I met Justine
a couple of weeks later in a bar,
06:16
she was just crushed,
06:19
and I asked her to explain the joke,
06:21
and she said, "Living in America
puts us in a bit of a bubble
06:23
when it comes to what is going on
in the Third World.
06:27
I was making of fun of that bubble."
06:29
You know, another woman on Twitter that
night, a New Statesman writer Helen Lewis,
06:32
she reviewed my book on public shaming
and wrote that she Tweeted that night,
06:36
"I'm not sure that her joke
was intended to be racist,"
06:40
and she said straightaway she got
a fury of Tweets saying,
06:43
"Well, you're just
a privileged bitch, too."
06:46
And so to her shame, she wrote,
06:48
she shut up and watched
as Justine's life got torn apart.
06:51
It started to get darker:
06:57
[Everyone go report
this cunt @JustineSacco]
06:59
Then came the calls for her to be fired.
07:02
[Good luck with the job hunt
in the new year. #GettingFired]
07:05
Thousands of people around the world
07:07
decided it was their duty
to get her fired.
07:09
[@JustineSacco last tweet
of your career. #SorryNotSorry
07:13
Corporations got involved,
hoping to sell their products
07:17
on the back of Justine's annihilation:
07:20
[Next time you plan to tweet something
stupid before you take off,
07:22
make sure you are getting
on a @Gogo flight!]
07:25
(Laughter)
07:28
A lot of companies were making
good money that night.
07:30
You know, Justine's name was normally
Googled 40 times a month.
07:33
That month, between December the 20th
and the end of December,
07:37
her name was Googled 1,220,000 times.
07:40
And one Internet economist told me
that that meant that Google made
07:45
somewhere between 120,000 dollars
and 468,000 dollars
07:49
from Justine's annihilation, whereas
those of us doing the actual shaming --
07:54
we got nothing.
07:58
(Laughter)
07:59
We were like unpaid
shaming interns for Google.
08:00
(Laughter)
08:04
And then came the trolls:
08:07
[I'm actually kind of hoping
Justine Sacco gets aids? lol]
08:09
Somebody else on that wrote,
08:12
"Somebody HIV-positive should rape
this bitch and then we'll find out
08:14
if her skin color protects her from AIDS."
08:17
And that person got a free pass.
08:19
Nobody went after that person.
08:22
We were all so excited
about destroying Justine,
08:24
and our shaming brains
are so simple-minded,
08:26
that we couldn't also handle
destroying somebody
08:29
who was inappropriately
destroying Justine.
08:31
Justine was really uniting
a lot of disparate groups that night,
08:35
from philanthropists to "rape the bitch."
08:39
[@JustineSacco I hope you get fired!
You demented bitch...
08:42
Just let the world know you're planning
to ride bare back while in Africa.]
08:46
Women always have it worse than men.
08:50
When a man gets shamed, it's,
"I'm going to get you fired."
08:52
When a woman gets shamed, it's,
08:55
"I'm going to get you fired
and raped and cut out your uterus."
08:57
And then Justine's employers got involved:
09:01
[IAC on @JustineSacco tweet: This is an
outrageous, offensive comment.
09:04
Employee in question currently
unreachable on an intl flight.]
09:07
And that's when the anger
turned to excitement:
09:10
[All I want for Christmas is to see
@JustineSacco's face when her plane lands
09:12
and she checks
her inbox/voicemail. #fired]
09:16
[Oh man, @justinesacco
is going to have the most painful
09:18
phone-turning-on moment ever
when her plane lands.]
09:21
[We are about to watch this @JustineSacco
bitch get fired. In REAL time.
09:23
Before she even KNOWS
she's getting fired.]
09:27
What we had was
a delightful narrative arc.
09:29
We knew something that Justine didn't.
09:31
Can you think of anything
less judicial than this?
09:33
Justine was asleep on a plane
and unable to explain herself,
09:35
and her inability was
a huge part of the hilarity.
09:38
On Twitter that night, we were
like toddlers crawling towards a gun.
09:42
Somebody worked out exactly
which plane she was on, so they linked
09:47
to a flight tracker website.
09:50
[British Airways Flight 43
On-time - arrives in 1 hour 34 minutes]
09:52
A hashtag began trending worldwide:
09:56
# hasJustineLandedYet?
09:58
[It is kinda wild
to see someone self-destruct
10:01
without them even being aware of it.
#hasJustineLandedYet]
10:03
[Seriously. I just want to go home
to go to bed, but everyone at the bar
10:06
is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet.
Can't look away. Can't leave.]
10:09
[#HasJustineLandedYet may be the best
thing to happen to my Friday night.]
10:12
[Is no one in Cape Town going
to the airport to tweet her arrival?
10:16
Come on, twitter! I'd like pictures]
10:19
And guess what? Yes there was.
10:20
[@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed
at Cape Town international.
10:22
And if you want to know
what it looks like to discover
10:25
that you've just been torn to shreds
because of a misconstrued liberal joke,
10:27
not by trolls, but by nice people like us,
10:31
this is what it looks like:
10:33
[... She's decided to wear
sunnies as a disguise.]
10:35
So why did we do it?
10:37
I think some people were genuinely upset,
10:39
but I think for other people,
10:42
it's because Twitter is basically
a mutual approval machine.
10:44
We surround ourselves with people
who feel the same way we do,
10:47
and we approve each other,
10:50
and that's a really good feeling.
10:51
And if somebody gets in the way,
we screen them out.
10:53
And do you know what
that's the opposite of?
10:55
It's the opposite of democracy.
10:58
We wanted to show that we cared
about people dying of AIDS in Africa.
11:00
Our desire to be seen to be compassionate
is what led us to commit
11:04
this profoundly un-compassionate act.
11:08
As Meghan O'Gieblyn wrote
in the Boston Review,
11:11
"This isn't social justice.
It's a cathartic alternative."
11:14
For the past three years,
11:19
I've been going around the world
meeting people like Justine Sacco --
11:20
and believe me, there's a lot
of people like Justine Sacco.
11:24
There's more every day.
11:27
And we want to think they're fine,
but they're not fine.
11:28
The people I met were mangled.
11:32
They talked to me about depression,
11:34
and anxiety and insomnia
and suicidal thoughts.
11:36
One woman I talked to,
who also told a joke that landed badly,
11:40
she stayed home for a year and a half.
11:44
Before that, she worked with adults
with learning difficulties,
11:47
and was apparently really good at her job.
11:51
Justine was fired, of course,
because social media demanded it.
11:55
But it was worse than that.
11:59
She was losing herself.
12:01
She was waking up in the middle
of the night, forgetting who she was.
12:03
She was got because she was perceived
to have misused her privilege.
12:08
And of course, that's a much better thing
to get people for than the things
12:12
we used to get people for,
like having children out of wedlock.
12:15
But the phrase "misuse of privilege"
is becoming a free pass
12:18
to tear apart pretty much
anybody we choose to.
12:21
It's becoming a devalued term,
12:25
and it's making us lose
our capacity for empathy
12:27
and for distinguishing between serious
and unserious transgressions.
12:30
Justine had 170 Twitter followers,
and so to make it work,
12:36
she had to be fictionalized.
12:39
Word got around that she was the daughter
the mining billionaire Desmond Sacco.
12:41
[Let us not be fooled by #JustineSacco
her father is a SA mining billionaire.
12:46
She's not sorry.
And neither is her father.]
12:50
I thought that was true about Justine,
12:52
until I met her at a bar, and I asked her
about her billionaire father,
12:54
and she said, "My father sells carpets."
12:57
And I think back on
the early days of Twitter,
12:59
when people would admit
shameful secrets about themselves,
13:01
and other people would say,
"Oh my God, I'm exactly the same."
13:04
These days, the hunt is on
for people's shameful secrets.
13:07
You can lead a good, ethical life,
13:11
but some bad phraseology in a Tweet
can overwhelm it all,
13:13
become a clue to your secret inner evil.
13:18
Maybe there's two types
of people in the world:
13:21
those people who favor
humans over ideology,
13:24
and those people who favor
ideology over humans.
13:27
I favor humans over ideology,
13:31
but right now, the ideologues are winning,
13:33
and they're creating a stage
for constant artificial high dramas
13:36
where everybody's either
a magnificent hero
13:41
or a sickening villain,
13:43
even though we know that's not true
about our fellow humans.
13:45
What's true is that
we are clever and stupid;
13:48
what's true is that we're grey areas.
13:52
The great thing about social media
was how it gave a voice
13:55
to voiceless people,
13:58
but we're now creating
a surveillance society,
13:59
where the smartest way to survive
is to go back to being voiceless.
14:02
Let's not do that.
14:07
Thank you.
14:08
(Applause)
14:10
Bruno Giussani: Thank you, Jon.
14:21
Jon Ronson: Thanks, Bruno.
14:22
BG: Don't go away.
14:24
What strikes me about Justine's story
14:26
is also the fact that if you
Google her name today,
14:28
this story covers the first
100 pages of Google results --
14:31
there is nothing else about her.
14:33
In your book, you mention another story
14:36
of another victim who actually got
taken on by a reputation management firm,
14:38
and by creating blogs and posting nice,
innocuous stories about her love for cats
14:43
and holidays and stuff,
managed to get the story
14:48
off the first couple pages of Google
results, but it didn't last long.
14:51
A couple of weeks later, they started
creeping back up to the top result.
14:55
Is this a totally lost battle?
15:00
Jon Ronson: You know, I think
the very best thing we can do,
15:02
if you see a kind of unfair
or an ambiguous shaming,
15:05
is to speak up, because I think
the worst thing that happened to Justine
15:09
was that nobody supported her --
like, everyone was against her,
15:13
and that is profoundly traumatizing,
15:16
to be told by tens of thousands of people
that you need to get out.
15:18
But if a shaming happens and there's
a babble of voices, like in a democracy,
15:21
where people are discussing it,
I think that's much less damaging.
15:26
So I think that's the way forward,
15:29
but it's hard, because if you do
stand up for somebody,
15:30
it's incredibly unpleasant.
15:33
BG: So let's talk about your experience,
15:35
because you stood up by writing this book.
15:37
By the way, it's mandatory
reading for everybody, okay?
15:39
You stood up because the book
actually puts the spotlight on shamers.
15:41
And I assume you didn't only
have friendly reactions on Twitter.
15:46
JR: It didn't go down that well
with some people.
15:49
(Laughter)
15:51
I mean, you don't want
to just concentrate --
15:52
because lots of people understood,
and were really nice about the book.
15:55
But yeah, for 30 years I've been writing
stories about abuses of power,
15:58
and when I say the powerful people
over there in the military,
16:01
or in the pharmaceutical industry,
everybody applauds me.
16:05
As soon as I say, "We are the powerful
people abusing our power now,"
16:07
I get people saying,
"Well you must be a racist too."
16:12
BG: So the other night --
yesterday -- we were at dinner,
16:15
and there were two discussions going on.
16:17
On one side you were talking
with people around the table --
16:19
and that was a nice,
constructive discussion.
16:22
On the other, every time
you turned to your phone,
16:24
there is this deluge of insults.
16:27
JR: Yeah. This happened last night.
We had like a TED dinner last night.
16:28
We were chatting and it was lovely
and nice, and I decided to check Twitter.
16:32
Somebody said, "You are
a white supremacist."
16:36
And then I went back and had
a nice conversation with somebody,
16:38
and then I went back to Twitter,
16:41
somebody said my very existence
made the world a worse place.
16:42
My friend Adam Curtis says
16:46
that maybe the Internet is like
a John Carpenter movie from the 1980s,
16:48
when eventually everyone
will start screaming at each other
16:52
and shooting each other,
and then eventually everybody
16:55
would flee to somewhere safer,
16:58
and I'm starting to think of that
as a really nice option.
17:00
BG: Jon, thank you.
JR: Thank you, Bruno.
17:04
(Applause)
17:06

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About the speaker:

Jon Ronson - Writer and filmmaker
Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary filmmaker who dips into every flavor of madness, extremism and obsession.

Why you should listen

For his latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson spent three years traveling the world and talking to people who'd been subjected to high-profile public shamings. Whatever their transgression, the response was to be faced by an angry mob, as Ronson calls them "collective outrage circles" devoted to tearing down said person from any position of power. It does not, Ronson suggests gently, reflect so well on society as a whole.

In a previous book, The Psychopath Test, Ronson explored the unnerving world of psychopaths -- a group that includes both incarcerated killers and, one of his subjects insists, plenty of CEOs. In his books, films and articles, Ronson explores madness and obsession of all kinds, from the US military's experiments in psychic warfare to the obscene and hate-filled yet Christian rap of the Insane Clown Posse. He wrote a column for the Guardian, hosted an essay program on Radio 4 in the United Kingdom, and contributes to This American Life.

More profile about the speaker
Jon Ronson | Speaker | TED.com