So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson, Picador, 288 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0330492287
Brenda Leyland was better known by the alliterative sobriquet “Twitter troll”. If you had watched Sky News on certain days in late 2014 you might even have thought this was her real name: Mrs T Troll. Leyland, sixty-three and from Leicestershire, was strongly of the opinion that the parents of missing English girl Madeleine McCann – Kate and Gerry – had questions to answer over the child’s disappearance in Portugal in 2007. Using the Twitter handle @sweepyface, Leyland had made this opinion known in 424 tweets or retweets that mentioned the McCanns over the course of less than a year – until Sky News came knocking.
The Twitter troll was doorstepped outside her home by Sky’s crime correspondent, Martin Brunt. “Well, I’m just about to go out,” she says pleasantly as he introduces himself. Brunt asks her to explain her tweets about the McCanns (Sky did not name Leyland), and says that police are looking into them. Shocked, Leyland defends herself half-heartedly, then says, “That’s fair enough.” She didn’t really think it was fair enough. Two days later, her body was found in a hotel room in Leicester after she took her own life.
Last month, at an inquest into Leyland’s death, a statement by her younger son, Ben, was read out in which he described her as a loving mother, a proud and stubborn woman who “could not bear to think she could be disliked by those in her community”. Leyland, whose apparent gentleness in person belied the tough and judgmental tone @sweepyface had used in baiting the McCanns, had been destroyed by her shaming in front of the nation.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite end there. As Jon Ronson points out in his absorbing and frightening new book, contemporary shamings are not generally conducted by “them” – Sky News in the Leyland case. They are driven by “us”. The moral compass of traditional media appears quaint when the vigilante democracy of Twitter is unleashed. In the hours after the Twitter troll report was aired on Sky, @sweepyface was subjected to a campaign of death threats and mysogyny many times more extreme than anything she had directed at the McCanns.
@sweepyface, we’re coming for you … Do you feel us?? The decent kind folk who pray for this family and their sad loss … You go to hell whore
@sweepyface hoping you get beaten so bad you beg for mercy, only to have gasoline thrown on you and set ablaze …
And so the troll was mercilessly trolled. Meanwhile, pitchfork-owners have been redirected to Facebook, where a “Sack Martin Brunt” page has appeared, with more than two thousand likes.
Ronson makes no mention of the Leyland case, and there really is no need, as he has found many more remarkable examples of humiliation than the tragic, grubby tale of the disgraced woman in Leicestershire. Besides, somewhat unusually for a man who has written about psychopaths, psychics, conspiracy theorists and extremists in a prolific and varied career, Ronson here shows more interest in the centre than in the margins – in social media as an outlet not for the merely abusive or extreme, but as a forum for wilful misinterpretation and punishment by the reasonable majority. “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be,” he writes. “The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche”.
Ronson often uses his gift for investigation and communication to interpret the extrordinary in an ordinary way, but the power of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed lies in the opposite dynamic – in ordinary, innocuous situations that become impossibly huge, cruel and crushing. Ronson assembles his cast of perpetrator-victims in a familiar style, but his skill at making connections, his understated empathy and accumulated wisdom somehow feel more substantial and important set against this relevant and weighty subject. Like some of the best writing of non-online warfare, the poignancy of often brutal stories is illuminated by the soft light of a deceptively simple narrative style.
The story of Justine Sacco is such an exquisite horror that it is easy to envisage the glee of her persecutors as they stand before the open goal. Sacco, a then thirty-year-old PR director, was passing through Heathrow on her way to South Africa one day in December 2013 when she composed a typically acerbic tweet to her one hundred and seventy followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
In the hours that followed, as she snoozed in her seat in the clouds, her bad, clumsy joke found its way to Gawker journalist Sam Biddle, and from there to the Twitter feeds of millions. By the time Sacco landed in Cape Town there was a man waiting to take her photograph at the airport. When she switched on her phone she saw a text message from someone she hadn’t seen since school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening”. She was baffled. From there, the process of Sacco’s destruction was swift and brutal: branded a racist around the world; fired from her “dream job”; locked outside the dating game for fear of being googled. All of this despite the relatively easily detectable irony in her tweet, which she explains reasonably: “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the Third World. I was making fun of that bubble.” Truth was the first victim in the giddiness of the bloodlust, but no one seemed to care, least of all Biddle: “Everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.”
Ronson’s “journey” – for this is what he calls it, a voyage of self-improvement in which he too is part of the mob (“I’d torn apart a LOT of people I couldn’t now remember”) – proves that this is indeed true. They are mad when successful young American author Jonah Lehrer is exposed for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for his new book, Imagine, and furious when the elaborate apology he makes in a speech shown live on the internet fails to meet expectations. As he stutters through his material, a live Twitter feed beside his head almost comically delivers a damning verdict: “Jonah Lehrer’s speech should be titled ‘Recognizing self-deluded assholes and how to avoid them in the future.’” They are apoplectic at the behaviour of Lindsey Stone, a care-giver who posts a silly photo of herself on Facebook flipping the bird beside a sign demanding “Silence and Respect” at Arlington military cemetery inVirginia: “Lindsey Stone hates the military and hates soldiers who have died in foreign wars”.
Lehrer and Stone lose their jobs. So too does Hank, when his juvenile conversation with a friend at a conference is overheard by a woman sitting in front of them and shared, alongside a photo she brazenly takes, on Twitter. And when Hank is fired the mob then turns on Adria, the woman in question, until she too is ruined. As Ronson’s investigation of the phenomenon cranks up, passing through nineteenth century groupthink philosophy, twentieth century psychology experiments and first-hand experiences with a contemporary shame workshop dealing in “radical honesty”, he begins to recognise a perverse dysfunctionality at play: “All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to just instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.”
A redemption of sorts arrives for Lyndsey Stone when, with Ronson’s help, she is able to build a new online reputution for herself. But the task is so bespoke and laborious that it does not offer much hope for others. For that we must consider the case of the former head of Formula One’s ruling body, Max Mosley, who not only won a legal case against the News of the World for claiming that “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers”, but handled the affair with such dignity and so little shame that if anything it made him more popular. Again, Ronson’s ability to get close to his subject offers a perspective so intimate it acts as a narrative device in itself: “It was getting dark by the time I left Max’s house. We both felt we hadn’t quite managed to solve the mystery and so we agreed to keep thinking about it.”
In the circumstances, it was little surprise that when Monica Lewinsky appeared at a TED conference in Vancouver recently to talk about her shaming as a young woman ‑ “Overnight, I went from being a completely private person to being a publicly humiliated one worldwide” – Ronson was asked for his thoughts on her speech by New York magazine. “The only thing is that some of the people who gave Monica a standing ovation would still happily tear apart Justine Sacco,” he noted. And who will be the next Justine Sacco? Find out soon, at a screen near you.
David McKechnie is an Irish Times journalist.