In the final days of 2013, I wrote a column for this site that sought to wrap up the year that was in terms of one of its most depressing overarching narratives. 2013, I said, was the “year of our outrage.” I’d spent the past year and beyond documenting instances in which people — both famous and painfully average — had drawn the wrath of a social media mob that seemed to revel in its ability to exact revenge for perceived slights of all kinds. It wasn’t simply that our internet culture was quick to outrage over even the tiniest misstep — the wrong joke made, the insensitive comment taken context-free, the unacceptable opinion offered — it was that so many actually enjoyed the evisceration of people whose motives and lives were never taken into consideration. We enjoyed tearing down the famous, sure, but there was an equal thrill to be had ripping to shreds even the smallest of targets, people whose intentions couldn’t possibly be as clear as those whose lives we watched 24/7 but who we could just as easily create narratives about to fit our preconceived notions.
I’m saying all of this like it was in the past. As if the social media outrage machine sputtered out at the beginning of 2014, its conductors at last seeing the error of their ways. We already know that nothing could be further from the truth. There were so many stupid contrived controversies and momentary internet fixations that drew the social media and hashtivist piranhas in 2014 that Slate actually published a year-end piece for that year which allowed readers to go day by day and see what certain segments of the internet were mad about from one 24-hour period to the next. It happened that often. There was that much unrestrained rage playing out on social media on any given day. And it probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that no matter how often someone points it out, no one ever thinks the better of making furious indignation and a potential mob-shaming simply the cost of doing business within social media these days. Jonathan Chait had the nerve to write an extended piece for New York about the damage this “new political correctness” movement is doing to our discourse and the people who participate in it, and I don’t need to tell you what the reaction was.
In my own 2013 round-up, I mentioned a lot of the same people Jon Ronson does in his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. A portion of this book was adapted for an article that appeared in the New York Times on February 12th and it should be required reading as it offers a crash course in the ongoing suffering a lot of normal people have been put through simply because they said or did something the internet didn’t approve of and decided to seek retribution for. The piece is based around Justine Sacco, the same person my piece was based on. Maybe you remember Sacco, maybe you don’t. But if you were anywhere near social media in December of 2013 you remember the hashtag that bore her name: #HasJustineLandedYet. The basics: Before setting off on a transcontinental flight from a London layover to South Africa, Sacco, an New York City publicist with media company IAC and someone with just 170 Twitter followers, tweeted out a dumb joke. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” it read. Sam Biddle at Gawker Media got a hold of it, posted it as another example of an affluent white woman basking in her own racist privilege and watched as it went viral in a matter of minutes.
As Justine Sacco flew halfway around the world at 35,000 feet for 12 hours, her life below, unbeknownst to her, was being systematically taken apart. Sacco, a nobody, was sincerely the biggest thing on the internet for 12 hours. She was a stone-cold phenomenon as the world beneath her ate her alive, reveling in the surprise that would be waiting for her when she landed and found out that everyone thought she was a racist scumbag. The joy social media seemed to take in facilitating this woman’s demise — this person none of them knew, over a joke no one assumed might have been misinterpreted — was nothing short of surreal and unnerving. We know what happened next. Justine did land. She was fired from her job. She was a national pariah. But only for a couple of days, until the mob moved on to someone else. But what Justine really went through, the suffering she endured and continues to for a crime no greater than making one joke on the internet to what she thought were only close friends, a joke that was misread from the very start, is only now being reported on. People like Jon Ronson are reporting it.
Ronson sat down with Sacco and talked with her about the harrowing mass shaming and the impact it had on her. She talks about the joke itself, saying that it was meant to mock the very insulated and privileged “American” point-of-view millions thought she was actually espousing (confirming a belief that I’ve written about many times, that humor relies completely on nuance and context). About her reaction to the hatred leveled at her: “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,” she says. “It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.” This is the same kind of thing you hear from someone else Ronson interviews for his book, another average person who was targeted for termination by the unstoppable and merciless social media T-101. Lindsey Stone, someone else I wrote about, was ripped to shreds after a picture she’d posted on Facebook, to her friends only, began circulating virally. The picture showed her appearing to shout at and flip off a sign the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington that read “Silence and Respect.” After she was fired and received threats against her life from people who called her a “fuckin cunt” and threatened to “pull the trigger” on her, she stayed indoors for most of the following year, suffering from PTSD, depression and insomnia. “I didn’t want to be seen by anyone,” she tells Ronson. “I didn’t want people looking at me.”
Ronson also runs down the story of Alicia Lynch, a 22-year-old who had the bad sense to post a picture of herself online dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim for Halloween. (Side note: Halloween is Christmastime for social media denizens looking for things at which to take umbrage.) Lynch received the requisite death threats and was fired from her job almost immediately. As I wrote at the time, it was unimaginable venom, unforgivable hatred, and unconscionable vengeance all directed at somebody who wore a stupid Halloween costume. It happened so quickly and so mercilessly that the poor kid never knew what hit her. The wrath of the mob was meant, as always, not only as punishment for that one insult but as a warning to others who might consider one day making a joke it doesn’t approve of; wearing an outfit it doesn’t like; doing a supposedly hurtful thing that can only be dealt with through hurt administered on a vast and crushing scale. That’s the thing, though: there will always be someone saying something someone else doesn’t like; the sheer size of social media guarantees it. The question is how we respond to these kinds of “offenses.”
Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic seems to think that the end of the rush to bring out the digital torches and pitchforks can’t come soon enough. In his column on Ronson’s book, he says that if nothing else he’d like to see Americans develop a “broad aversion” to people being fired for comments that have nothing to do with their jobs. I’ve been talking about this kind of thing for years and couldn’t agree more. While it’s true that internet mobs don’t violate a person’s right to free speech, per se, the threat of the complete ruination of someone’s life as punishment for saying the wrong thing is often — let’s face it — as chilling as any state-sanctioned limitation on speech. You threaten to take someone’s livelihood away from that person and their family, you may as well being telling them you’re going to put them in prison. Unfortunately, I wish I had as much faith in us as Friedersdorf does. He feels like we might finally be turning a corner on this whole thing, given that the real-world damage our quickfire outrage culture has caused over the past few years is finally being publicly surveyed.
I just don’t think that’s true and the reason why lies in something Friedersdorf himself says in his piece: “Many of the individuals who shamed and harassed these women likely thought of themselves as doing something like telling a stranger, at a military cemetery or a Halloween party, ‘Hey, that’s messed up, you jerk!'” he writes. “In fact, they were helping to mete out a much more severe punishment.” And that’s the thing: In order to stop the mob you’d have to stop make each individual person within it think twice about what he or she is doing, and there are simply too many of them — the mob begins to operate as its own entity once enough people gather and don’t take into account the thousands and potentially millions of others like them who are also piling on. That’s when the “severe punishment” is meted out. When that punishment, by the very nature of the number of people behind it, becomes far more devastating than the crime for which it’s meant to provide justice. In the end, I just can’t see anything changing.