There’s arguably no emotion more powerful than shame. From an early age, we learn the discomfort brought on by feelings of having done ‘wrong’. Without the heaviness of shame, you might not know your behavior is unacceptable.


Public shaming has undergone a digital renaissance, thanks in large part to Twitter and online social media commentary. If you don’t stand corrected, then fear not -someone out there is more than happy to step up to the task.


The flip side of today’s trial by social media is the subject of journalist Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In it, he examines the fallout for the shamed and poses the question: does the punishment fit the crime? And, whether it does or not, has the life of the shamed person changed irrevocably in the time taken to type 280 characters?

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14.06.22

You might not have heard of Justine Sacco. Back in 2013, she unwittingly caused a stir due to a tone-deaf tweet sent en route to South Africa. As one of the main subjects of his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson recounts:


“As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel.


“On Dec. 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’


“No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers. Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school. Then her phone exploded with more texts and alerts. And then it rang.


“As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet.”


When you enter the Twitter arena, perhaps it’s safe to presume nuance is left at the coat-check. Whether her glib comment was ill-intended or not, her role in public relations certainly made the tweet all the more ill-judged. It begged the question, shouldn’t she have known better? 


That’s what many Twitter users felt, with one commenting:


“I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”


It’s human nature to find entertainment in schadenfreude. The pervasiveness of online shame campaigning lies, in part at least, in the gratification involved for the shamer. As he reflects on his own initial forays as part of the righteous mob, Ronson himself recalls:


“In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it.


“In those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized."


This logic sounds fair. Calling out harmful or hateful speech in and of itself seems like a progressive move. On the face of it, it signifies coming together, to bring down a bully, or right a wrong. However gradually, Ronson noticed the nature of these virtual confrontations veer in a different direction. 


He continues:


“As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.”

Public shaming and ostrasization have been part of humanity’s retribution toolkit for centuries. Medieval Europe and Colonial America were particularly fond of doling out humiliating forms of state-sanctioned punishment. To enforce order in the chaos of the time, shame was weaponised. By 1900, the Enlightenment had taken hold, and such acts were phased out.


Indeed, in Ronson’s research he found the movement against public shaming in America had gained momentum as early as 1787, when Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a paper calling for its demise:


“It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”


Facing backlash from people we’ve wronged is certainly one of the more challenging aspects of life. Real-life gaffes at work or in the company of friends might leave us red-faced but we have opportunity to personally make amends. In his perusal of the Massachusetts Archives in Boston, Ronson uncovered:


“I did find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning the outsize cruelty of the practice, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.”


Therein lies the problem. When the scales tip – as they inevitably do, on a global, public interface with limited censure - Twitter can become the modern day equivalent of the town square lynch mob. This doesn’t sit well with Ronson:


“Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns.


“The furore over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc.”


Very few people have the squeaky-clean image they like to present on social media. Ironically, in certain cases those responsible for bringing undesirable comments to public attention have themselves faced the public firing squad. In Sacco’s case, the comment was retweeted by Sam Biddle.


“Biddle was then the editor of Valleywag, Gawker Media’s tech-industry blog. He retweeted it to his 15,000 followers and eventually posted it on Valleywag, accompanied by the headline, ‘And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke from IAC’s P.R. Boss.’

“Months later, Biddle would find himself at the wrong end of the Internet shame machine for tweeting a joke of his own: “Bring Back Bullying.” On the one-year anniversary of the Sacco episode, he published a public apology to her on Gawker.”


I feel a certain biblical reference coming to mind… something about being without fault and casting stones? Social media platforms have rightfully come under fire when they don’t do enough to counteract hate speech and cyberbullying online. Ronson’s treatise covers the grey area where an unfortunate joke taken in isolation from the context claimed by the author, has far-reaching consequences. The rest of us could do well to remember to think before we tweet and equally, before reaching for our pitchforks. 


He reflects:


“Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own - a bid for the attention of strangers - as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.”


Posts on social media are part of an archive that never disappears. How many times have you sent a rushed text or email, only to read it back later and feel regret about how abrupt it sounds? Or how one of your hilarious quips fired off hastily can read… badly. Ronson reminds us that there are consequences, however unintended, that last long after the instant rush of gratification to be had from posting, or shaming, online.

Image by Joe Woods
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