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The majority of us have some kind of online presence, whether on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Tinder, or a cocktail of them all. Social media is everywhere, and being present online is a weird passport confirming our existence. But what happens when social media turns against us? Jon Ronson’s latest pop-psychology offering, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, explores the sinister phenomenon of public shaming on the internet, and how transgressions online can become all too real.
Some of you will remember the saga of Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted an (admittedly terrible) AIDS-related joke before getting on a flight from London to South Africa. While Justine was in transit, her misguided but seemingly harmless tweet exploded beyond the sphere of her small number of Twitter followers to the wider online world. She became the number-one worldwide trending topic, a clickbait headline, the face of privileged white racism. Her flight path was hungrily followed by people all over the world, anxious for her to touch down and the show to begin. All this in the space of mere hours; all the while she remained completely unaware. She lost her job, her dignity, her relationship with her family suffered. As Ronson puts it, Justine had been “labouring under the misapprehension […] that Twitter was a safe-place to tell the truth about yourself to strangers.” Twitter was not a safe place for Justine anymore, and following death and rape threats from strangers online, the real world didn’t seem that safe either.
This is just one of the scandalously compelling stories featured in the book. Ronson has explored the fallout from internet catastrophes such as Justine’s, and he does so by talking to the people who have experienced first-hand the descent of the online horde, those who have been vilified and demonised and suffered the very real impact on their lives. He also explores the other side—people who have come out the victors after a public shaming, such as Max Mosley, the Formula One boss whose kinky sex antics were plastered over News of the World. Ronson tries to answer the question of what separates these people from those who have fallen so shamefully from grace.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed may not sound like an uplifting read, and perhaps it isn’t, but it is compulsively readable, and might make you a little bit cautious of the internet and its omnipotent powers of destruction—and the part that you might be playing in it.