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July 06, 2015

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Publicly ShamedSo You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

By: Jon Ronson

After journalist Jon Ronson first revels in, and is later revolted by the nasty comments viewers leave on a YouTube video, he realizes public shaming for ordinary folks is back. Instead of old-school punishments doled out by the local community, like pillorying, flogging, or oppressive shunning à la The Scarlet Letter, a worldwide audience can now participate in shaming via social media. Social media can give us a voice to create positive change, but when a regular person makes a tasteless joke or a stupid mistake that goes viral, it can also lead to a kind of vigilante justice in which they are excoriated by strangers, fired from a job, or receive nonchalant threats of violence or death.

Ronson decided to investigate why shaming on social media is such an effective means of control and how we can be so eager to create villains before our attention turns elsewhere. His resulting book is compassionate, insightful, disturbing, and often funny. He interviewed both the recent targets of massive social media shaming, as well as those who have done the shaming. Many of the shamers gloried in their targets’ humiliation, and assumed they would recover quickly; in reality, the targets still suffered, some struggled financially, lived in fear of being found out by coworkers, and at least one was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The shamers weren’t always untouched either: one blogger still suffered over outing a plagiarist the year before.

But Ronson didn’t just stop there. To better understand shame, he interviewed a strange array of people in the shame business, including a Texas judge who’s well-known for his prison-free shaming punishments, a hilariously bizarre shame-eradication seminar, the somewhat-shady business of online reputation management, and a courtroom witness coaching class, in which expert witnesses are taught how to react when lawyers use shame as a weapon to undermine testimony.

It’s a fascinating investigation into one aspect of the dark side of social media, especially since Ronson unflinchingly examines his own motivations for participating in online shaming.


Review By: Julia Welzen