So You’re Still Being Publicly Shamed

The Right wants you to believe that a coddled, overly sensitive left is propping up cancel culture. But punitive, hyper-surveillant ways of interacting online are built into the structure of privately owned social media companies, and they’re practiced across the political spectrum. The Left must insist on a better way.

Ronson is right to identify the bad incentives built into the design of social media platforms as a contributing factor in generating this culture of mutual surveillance and hair-trigger denunciation. Stacey MacNaught / Flickr

The excesses of what’s now called “cancel culture” are usually associated by mainstream and right-wing media with progressives and the Left. But one of the most striking stories about online mob justice in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is about a public shaming dished out by ultrapatriotic conservatives.

Lindsey Stone and her friend Jamie worked with adults with learning disabilities for a nonprofit called Living Independently Forever (LIFE). They seem to have been very good at their job. Jamie started a jewelry club that Ronson said was a “hit” with some of her clients. They convinced LIFE to buy a karaoke system and took the clients bowling. The pair was popular with both the clients and their parents.

When they weren’t at work, they liked to take jokey pictures of each other irreverently doing things like smoking in front of “No Smoking” signs. They’d post the pictures on Facebook for a few “likes” from friends. Like most social media users, they didn’t pay much attention to their privacy settings.

In October 2012, they were part of a LIFE field trip to Washington, DC. During their off-hours, Jamie and Lindsey went to Arlington National Cemetery. Jamie took a picture of Lindsey silently pretending to yell and flip off her friend next to a sign that said, “Silence and Respect.”

The two could be accused, at worst, of making a joke in poor taste. Even those most gravely offended by such a picture probably wouldn’t say they think Lindsey deserved to have her life ruined over it. But that’s exactly what happened.

No one outside their circle of friends seems to have noticed the picture for four weeks. Then, one day in mid-November, random strangers started calling her a fat feminist and a whore, and talking about how she should be exiled from the country or sent to prison. A “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook group popped up. Twelve thousand people liked the page.

That Wednesday night, the mob got its wish. Lindsey wasn’t even allowed to enter the building the next morning to empty out her desk. Her boss made her meet him in the parking lot. “Literally overnight,” she told Ronson, “everything I knew and loved was gone.”

She didn’t get another job for a year. She didn’t go out on dates because of her certainty that men would google her. She suffered from depression and insomnia.

Reading Ronson’s account of Stone’s experience eight years after it happened and five years after the publication of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, most of this feels depressingly current. The culture war preoccupations of the moment have shifted a bit since then, but the shape of the incident feels like the sort of thing that happens across the ideological spectrum twenty times a day in 2020.

Ronson takes several stories of people who found themselves the subject of mass condemnation online as a jumping-off point for a general investigation of the phenomenon of public shaming. He looks at laws in nineteenth-century Massachusetts that sentenced people to time in the stocks or public whippings for minor offenses. He interviews Houston congressman and former judge Ted Poe about his history of handing out creative punishments that hearken back to that history, making public shame a key part of convicts’ sentences. He attends a seminar by Brad Blanton intended to help people outgrow shame by teaching them “radical honesty.”

But his main concern is with online public shamings — why they happen, how they work, and whether there’s any way for their recipients to get past them and rebuild their reputations.

The phrase “cancel culture” doesn’t seem to have been coined until a few years ago, but everything that it now refers to is there in the incidents described in Ronson’s book. Even the now-all-too-familiar spectacle of cancelers insisting, mid-cancelation, that no one is ever really canceled was present in the pile-on against Lindsay Stone.

In between comments calling Lindsey the c-word and hoping for her death, and the relatively tame ones like, “Send the dumb feminist to prison,” Ronson quotes this intervention: “HER FUTURE ISN’T RUINED! Stop trying to make her into a martyr. In 6 months no one except those who actually know her will remember this.” Of course, this turned out to be wrong.

Jon Ronson and ContraPoints

The only uses of the words “cancel” and “canceling” in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed are in sentences about canceled Google Alerts and canceled gym memberships. Even the predecessor phrase “callout culture” doesn’t appear anywhere in the book. But it should be seen, alongside the late Mark Fisher’s 2013 essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” as a key text for thoughtful left-wing critics of the punitive set of practices that make up what we now call “cancel culture.”

For example, in left YouTube star Natalie Wynn’s immensely popular 2019 video “Canceling,” she quotes one of the most memorable passages from Ronson’s book:

[I]t didn’t seem to cross any of our minds whether whichever person we had just shamed was OK or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes, nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

Some leftists are understandably irritated by this kind of critique. While online mobbings do sometimes lead to suicides, that’s quite rare. It’s easy to tell people complaining of cancellations to just log off and stop being so sensitive.

But there are some problems with this response. For one, there is a serious tension between the defenders of cancel culture who sternly talk about “accountability” and the need for “consequences” for reactionary behavior, while at the same time insisting that cancelation is just “criticism.” If angry denunciations from thousands of strangers didn’t have an adverse psychological effect on the average human being that ordinary criticism did not, then “criticism” couldn’t add up to any substantive “consequence” for bad behavior.

In many of the stories in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the consequences aren’t just emotional. In the airport on her way to Cape Town, Justine Sacco sarcastically tweeted that she wouldn’t get AIDS in Africa because she was white. It was an awkwardly worded joke that she thought was mocking racism. But before she’d landed in South Africa, her tweet went so viral that thousands of people were describing it to millions of people as “a racist tweet.”

Sacco came from a family of supporters of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid party, and she was flying to South Africa to visit her relatives. But no one who saw the tweet and instantly reacted knew any of that. In fact, when people realized that she was South African, rumors spread that Sacco — the daughter of a single mother who worked as a flight attendant and took a second job to pay the bills — was the heiress to a multibillion-dollar fortune from diamond mines. She did have a good middle-class job at this point in her life, but she lost it as soon as the tweet exploded.

This was only the beginning of the “consequences” she experienced. Gawker ransacked her old tweets. New York Post reporters started following her to the gym. She had to leave the United States to be around people who didn’t know her from the tweet.

We’re constantly told that complaints about cancel culture are a matter of rich and powerful celebrities complaining about being justly criticized. But Justine Sacco wasn’t any sort of celebrity before her cancelation. The intended audience of that joke was made up of exactly 170 people who followed her on Twitter. Nor was she powerful or especially rich. Neither is Lindsey Stone.

Neither was “Hank,” a tech developer whose real name Ronson doesn’t use because it never became public. He was, however, fired after another tech developer overheard a joke he told a friend sitting next to him at a conference that he continues to insist was innocent but the other developer said was sexist. (It involved the phrase “big dongles,” a double-entendre use of tech jargon I’m not going to pretend to understand.) She took his picture without telling him what she was doing and posted it on Twitter, along with a description of the joke.

In a cruel twist, she herself was soon targeted for retaliatory cancelation by misogynistic “men’s rights” bloggers. “Hank” managed to quickly get another job. The other developer wasn’t so lucky.

Writing About Writing About Public Shaming

Ronson is very good at narrating these incidents. His writing is powerful and understated, and he has a knack for picking the details that add layers of irony or moral complexity to a story. Rereading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, my biggest frustration is that he’s so good at it that he often does it even in parts of the book where he should be doing something else.

In chapters where he could have developed a larger argument about where cancel culture (or “denunciation culture,” or “public-shaming culture,” or whatever we want to call it) comes from and what should be done about it, he instead applies his considerable narrative talents to describing his own journey to answer those questions. The effect is that it often feels less like a book about public shaming than a book about Ronson writing a book about public shaming.

That said, several insights come up in the course of his journey that add up to the raw ingredients of an analysis that steers clear of both the right-wing hysteria about cancel culture — which hypes it up as a force of evil emerging from somewhere within the dark hearts of the cultural Marxists who have stealthily grabbed hold of the levers of power in our culture — and the “cancel culture doesn’t exist” denialism of too much of the Left.

A popular view about online (and offline) mob psychology postulates a kind of “group madness” that takes away the free will of individual participants. This received apparent scientific support in the twentieth century from the (now thoroughly debunked) Stanford Prison Experiment, but the real father of the theory was nineteenth-century crank Gustave Le Bon.

The chapter on Le Bon is one of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’s best. Le Bon was a literal skull measurer who “wanted to demonstrate that businessmen and aristocrats had bigger brains than everyone else and were less likely to succumb to mass hysteria.” (I’ll leave any comparison between this thesis and the IQ fixations of contemporary right-wing culture warriors as an exercise for the reader.) He used skulls at the Anthropological Society of Paris for research, filling them with buckshot and counting the number of pieces it took to fill each skull in order to measure volume.

The major impetus for his work on “the madness of crowds” was his hysterical reaction to the Paris Commune of 1871. He could only make sense of ordinary workers, artisans, and National Guardsmen taking over the city government and reorganizing it on radically democratic lines by telling himself that the proles had simply lost their minds.

A more grounded explanation of the psychology of online pile-ons is suggested by a passage near the end of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which Ronson compares the incentive structures built into social media platforms with the “Your Speed” signs tested in California in the early 2000s. The signs, which are now common around the country, automatically tell drivers how fast they’re going and place that number next to the posted speed limit.

There’s no reason in principle why these signs should work. Every car has a built-in speedometer, and regular low-tech signs have always told drivers the speed limit, so the Your Speed signs don’t give us any information we wouldn’t otherwise have. Nor does the sign come with any kind of enforcement mechanism.

Yet according to numerous studies, the signs do work. That’s because instant feedback loops are effective.

In the case of Your Speed signs, that’s a good thing. Seeing your speed come down until it matches the posted limit is a small psychological reward that slows everyone down and thus reduces accidents, injuries, and deaths on the road. But the instant feedback loops built into social media platforms, designed by the near-monopolistic corporations that own them to be as addictive they can make them, reward our worst impulses.

The Case of Wendell Potter

A small recent example: Wendell Potter is a former health insurance executive who’s spent the last decade since he left the industry relentlessly crusading for single-payer health care. He is to the insurance industry what Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, was to the American war machine.

His current good works involve constantly talking about how much damage he did in his previous career. This tweet from late June was typical:

A writer with 15,000 Twitter followers tweeted out screenshots of Potter’s thread with the caption, “This utter piece of shit actually admitted it.” This tweet racked up more than 75,000 likes and almost 40,000 retweets before enough people had told the writer who Potter was that he was moved to delete it.

It would have taken no more than three seconds for the writer to find out on his own who Potter was before composing this condemnation. All he would have had to do was click on Potter’s name at the top of the tweet and glance at Potter’s bio, which includes “Whistleblower and reformed insurance propagandist,” and Potter’s status as the president of multiple Medicare for All advocacy organizations, or googled Potter’s name.

The writer didn’t bother taking a few seconds finding out the most basic information about the man whose name he was about to drag through the mud because the incentives built into platforms like Twitter reward denouncing first and researching later (or not at all). Don’t stop. Don’t think. Just denounce — and bask in the instant validation coming your way from tens of thousands of strangers.

Going Beyond Ronson’s Analysis

I’ve argued elsewhere that this phenomenon produces particularly toxic and counterproductive results when it intersects with a kind of moralism that’s become common on the contemporary left. This is both a symptom of our powerlessness and one of several factors that contribute to its perpetuation. But it’s also important to note that cancel culture is hardly unique to the Left.

You can see it in the actions of conservatives who whip up online outrage to try to get baristas fired for saying “Fuck Trump” as much as in the antics of the student at Emerson College who recently reported the adjunct professor who taught her queer studies class to the dean (and to all of Twitter) for reacting in a calm and thoughtful (but apparently insufficiently apologetic) way to her query about the number of black authors on the syllabus. Cancel culture is a general disease of twenty-first-century capitalism that infects the entire political spectrum.

Ronson is right to identify the bad incentives built into the design of social media platforms as a contributing factor in generating this culture of mutual surveillance and hair-trigger denunciation. We can go beyond Ronson’s analysis by identifying several other factors, like the heightened level of social atomization and alienation that’s part and parcel of life under neoliberalism. If you don’t feel connected to other human beings in the rest of your life, you’re that much more likely to seek their approval at the expense of others through participating in denunciation games online.

The retreat of various social movements, especially organized labor, which can act as counterweights to the entrenched power of those on top of society, contributes to making all the people on the bottom justifiably feel powerless. Campaigns of online harassment can make their participants feel powerful, especially when the targets end up facing “consequences” like being deplatformed or fired from their jobs.

Instead of ceding the issue to the Right by denying that cancel culture exists, the Left should advance its own analysis of the issue. Where the latter-day Gustave Le Bons at publications like Quillette treat it as something that springs from egalitarian political impulses, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, we can explain how it results from the ugly realities of neoliberalized capitalism.

And where right-wing culture warriors can only endlessly denounce this culture of hair-trigger denunciation, the Left can provide real solutions. If social media platforms were taken into public ownership, the profit incentives to always look for ways to make them more addictive would disappear, and we could make collective, democratic decisions about what those platforms should look like that take into account our common good. If we rebuild the labor movement and put an end to the semifeudal power of bosses in most American workplaces, “doxing” would lose at least part of its sting. And far fewer people will misdirect their political energies into scolding strangers on the internet if we build a powerful and appealing movement to change the real world.

While Ronson seems to be a good progressive who might be sympathetic to at least some of these ideas, neither these nor any other solutions are proposed in his book. Apart from a few insightful points like the one about Your Speed signs, he also doesn’t come to very many firm conclusions about what causes the phenomenon in the first place.

Even so, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is still worth reading. In the five years since the book was published, with the exception of arguments advanced by people like Natalie Wynn, discussions of canceling have rarely gone beyond the usual tedious back and forth between the obnoxious and often overblown complaints of the Right and knee-jerk defensiveness from progressives. Ronson has given us a thoughtful and well-researched exploration of a subject that makes many writers on all sides of this debate too angry to say anything with analytic depth. That’s an immensely valuable contribution.