Mob rule on the intertubes

There are a few topics I currently feel passionate about, and if I don’t do this one now it will slip off the list.


Last week Richard Fidler did a re-run of his interview with Jon Ronson on what it’s like to be publicly shamed and Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Twitter and Facebook have become places where people can be mercilessly attacked and threatened. Many lose their jobs, are afraid to go outside, and their lives forever change. Some, says Ronson, commit suicide.

Usually the subject of shaming does something stupid or thoughtless. However, the reaction is out of all proportion, and typically includes threats of violence, sexual attacks and death threats, especially to women.

Wikipedia’s Online shaming site gives an account of the Justine Sacco incident. Sacco was Director of Corporate Communications at the New York internet firm IAC. En route to Cape Town at Heathrow she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!” As a South African herself, she intended the tweet to mock American ignorance of South Africa. By the time she landed 11 hours later she had already been sacked from her job. Meanwhile she had been the top-rated topic on Twitter world-wide, and had been threatened with all sorts of sexual violence.

She was shattered, but I understand a year later she had pulled her life together and obtained another job.

Ronson’s Guardian article, an edited excerpt from his book, goes into some detail on the case of Lindsey Stone, a carer who worked with Life (Living Independently Forever), a campus residence for “pretty high-functioning people with learning difficulties”. In her private life she had a silly habit with her friend of posting selfies on Facebook sending up public signs, doing the opposite of what the sign said. It was especially dumb to get photographed at the National War Memorial obviously shouting and giving the finger next to a sign asking for silence and respect.

The Facebook security settings weren’t as good as they should have been and a month later the photo went viral. She was instantly sacked, and was afraid to even go outside for nearly a year.

She was lucky in that via Ronson she had an internet persona make-over done by a firm that does such things for clients, and eventually got a new job.

Then there was the computer tech guy Hank, who made a rather mild sexual joke with his mate during a conference session. A woman in front of him, Adria Richards, turned and took some photos. Ten minutes later he and his mate were pulled out of the conference by an organiser, and warned that there had been a complaint. A Twitter storm followed and next day he was fired.

Hank quickly got another job, but felt he had the right to tweet his side of the story. When he did that led to the shaming of Richards:

    “A father of three is out of a job because a silly joke he was telling a friend was overheard by someone with more power than sense. Let’s crucify this cunt.” “Kill her.” “Cut out her uterus with an xacto knife.”

    Someone sent Adria a photograph of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Adria’s face was superimposed on to the bodies of porn actors. Next, her employer’s website went down. Someone launched a DDoS attack, which overwhelms a site’s servers with repeated requests. SendGrid, her employer, was told the attacks would stop if she was fired. Within hours, she was fired.

Hank had not intended this outcome, and defended her original action in reporting him, and had not joined in attacking Richards. However, she continued to get death threats and rape threats and racist insults, and had to disappear for six months.

These incidents often begin with a silly but relatively harmless action, followed by a Twitter storm, and a Facebook page is often set up for the purpose on shaming.

All this makes whatever the Human Rights Commission does with respect to 18C look like child’s play. Never was there a better example as to how ‘free’ speech can cause real harm. Where is the responsibility? Surely Twitter has to develop an algorithm that detects these incidents and stops them in their tracks.

The shamers would include a range of people, some with genuine principles, but Ronson said there are usually swarms of trolls, mal-formed sadists who like nothing better than to kick someone when they are down.

What we have here in not justice. It’s worse that the traditional practice of putting people in stocks in the public square and throwing rotten fruit at them. More like a public stoning.

Ronson says that this phenomenon is not speaking truth to power. The power lies with the shamers, who exercise it brutally and without compassion. This review of Ronson’s book mentions a book by American academic Jennifer Jacquet, (whence the image up top) who advocates using shame “sparingly and pointedly, to promote political change and social reform.” She believes:

    shaming can function as a nonviolent form of resistance that, in turn, challenges institutions, organizations, and even governments to actuate large-scale change. She argues that when applied in the right way, the right quantity, and at the right time, shame has the capacity to keep us from failing other species in life’s fabric and, ultimately, ourselves.

That, I think, is a different matter entirely.

The internet has changed and enriched our lives, providing new opportunities for communication and self-expression. However, it appears to have released dark demons deeply embedded in our nature, taking us back a couple of centuries to a time we should have left behind. Wikipedia tells us:

    As a state-sanctioned punishment, public shaming was popular in Colonial America. Between 1837 in the UK and 1839 in the US, it was phased out as a punishment, not due to increasingly populous society, as widely held, but instead due to rising calls for compassion.

What’s happening now is not state-sanctioned. We have some rich owners of public internet platforms making money out of the multiple eye-balls. Time to call halt.

One thought on “Mob rule on the intertubes”

  1. It gets a bit scary when you have massive publishing platforms that are unable to screen out attacks of the sort described here or false news of the sort that some believe distort elections.

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