A few months ago, Monica Lewinsky surfaced with a TED talk and Vanity Fair essay to claim she was Patient Zero of the era of internet-accelerated global public shaming. There was no Twitter, of course, in 1998 when her sex life became fodder for talk-show comedians and the Drudge Report, but she has a point. Things have only speeded up since: today, a life can be permanently altered by an angry mob in the time it takes to land a plane.
Lewinsky's tale closely matches the stories Jon Ronson recounts in the opening pages of So You've Been Publicly Shamed. The people he interviews are traumatized: they lose their jobs, they hide, and fear the inevitable moment when their history becomes the first thing every prospective employer or new acquaintance sees in an internet search. The worst affected are almost all women. If you're going to be the subject of a scandal, your best bet is to be a male caught in a consensual sex act. Bill Clinton remained a powerful figure, as did Britain's Max Mosley; meanwhile, Monica Lewinsky struggled to find employment, despite a master's degree in social psychology from the LSE.
Ronson's journey begins with a personal story: when three recalcitrant academics refused to take down a bot impersonating him, he saw them run off Twitter. People piled on. It felt good. Afterwards, he wondered: what about the people on the receiving end? It was the time of 'donglegate', the former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Lindsay Stone. He visits Kennebunk, Maine, where among the clients of a local Zumba instructor caught running a one-woman brothel was a local pastor. Ronson is thorough in his research. He attends a 'shame eradication' workshop and visits a former judge whose interactions with convicted killers have found shame at the root of many crimes. He also tracks down Mercedes, a 4Chan member who explains online abuse as a way to reclaim online space from being gentrified and taken away, like many physical public spaces have been. Also on his tour: a role-playing pornography group called Public Disgrace and a reputation management firm. Along the way, he debunks several well-known myths, shedding new light on the famous Zimbardo study and busting the "broken windows" theory of policing.
"Is permanent global disgrace a proportionate punishment for making a bad joke? Or for calling someone out who made one?"
Ronson concludes that we are adopting behaviour that was considered too brutal to be allowed to continue in 1787, when US Founding Father Benjamin Rush called ignominy "a worse punishment than death" and called for the pillory, the stocks, and the whipping post to be outlawed. The result of our current path, he writes, is conservatism and conformity: "We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it." Libertarians may argue that such storms are a way for us to exercise power in situations where previously we could do nothing. But is permanent global disgrace a proportionate punishment for making a bad joke? Or for calling someone out who made one? The result, Ronson writes as he watches the reputation managers cleanse Lindsay Stone's search profile, is self-censorship. Is it OK to say you don't like cats?
Ronson's book is entertaining but offers no solutions. The closest he comes is feedback loops, like the lighted LED signs that compare your actual speed to the speed limit. Those we have, he writes, are taking us in that conservative, bland direction. A different take comes from University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron, who advocates using the law in Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Citron writes after speaking to scores of victims, 20 of them in depth.
She frames her book with three stories of women who, unlike Ronson's cases, did nothing obviously wrong yet provoked public ire. Although Citron names them (one via a pseudonym), she primarily refers to them as the 'tech blogger' (Kathy Sierra), the 'law student' ("Nancy Andrews"), and the 'revenge porn victim' (Holly Jacobs). Sierra's widely respected writing about user interfaces made her (and her children) the target of rape and death threats. Andrews was attacked for years by fellow students who deliberately set out to undermine her career prospects. Jacobs was the target of a former boyfriend (a boyfiend?).
Citron begins by rejecting the general attitude that nothing can be done without damaging the internet, the First Amendment rules, and people should toughen up. Comparing internet abuse to sexual harassment and domestic violence, which became both unacceptable and illegal during the 1980s and 1990s, Citron argues that it's time for social attitudes -- and the law -- to change about online abuse. The big question is how.
Most options are not completely satisfactory, Citron writes. Real-names policies might eliminate the worst, most abusive side of anonymity, but they also bar whistle-blowers from speaking out and vulnerable people in need from accessing help. Rather than banning it, she suggests making anonymity a privilege you can lose through abuse. Design strategies such as the use of avatars to counter the distancing effect might remind people their fellow users are real humans -- although Citron notes they might also foster sexist behavior. Counter-speech, such as Google's warning of potentially offensive speech, may help in some cases. Parents could help control their kids -- if they know what those kids are doing, which Citron argues they should. Schools could teach digital citizenship.
"Comparing internet abuse to sexual harassment and domestic violence, which became both unacceptable and illegal during the 1980s and 1990s, Citron argues that it's time for social attitudes -- and the law -- to change about online abuse."
Plus, of course, she wants us to use the law. The First Amendment has well-established limits, and other laws barring stalking already exist. What's required is enforcement: often the problem is a lack of understanding that the law applies, a lack of the technical expertise to understand the nature of the crime, and a general failure to take complaints seriously. Citron also suggests that the consequences for victims should be curbed by, for example, banning employers from using the results of online searches in their hiring decisions. Finally, she believes that under some circumstances ISPs could be required to do more to police their users and sanctioned if they don't. This suggestion is undercut slightly by her exemplar of a well-curated system: the rapidly declining MySpace.
At of the end of the book, Citron's three headline cases are recovering. The tech blogger feels freed by her tormentor's imprisonment for hacking AT&T's customer information service, and is resuming writing. The law student works at the Department of Justice. And the revenge porn victim has founded the anti-harassment Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, with Citron on the board of directors. Like the cases Ronson cites, their stories ask us to consider the possibility that internet speech may also be action. Are Citron's ideas workable without destroying free expression? Some are, certainly. We could start, as Ronson suggests, by not piling on ourselves.