The Unleashed Scandal, book review: Documenting the new face of public life
Does technology make public embarrassment and disgrace worse, or does it just spread the humiliation around more evenly? This book documents dozens of scandals, small and large, to ask whether we're losing control of lives that are increasingly lived in public.
Think back a few decades. Scandal was either front-page news (if you were a celebrity or a politician involved in something like the Profumo Affair or Watergate) or it was a strictly local affair, with only your friends and family gossiping about you. These days, paparazzi still hound celebrities — but so can any 'citizen journalist' with a smartphone. Also, stories that go viral are as likely to feature random people behaving badly in public as they are well-known figures.
A Chinese student trying to mediate at a protest over the situation in Tibet at a US university might have made the evening news in that city a few years ago. However, it's unlikely the story would have spread much further. Now blogs and YouTube videos mean that offended neighbours back home can discover and attack her family.
The Chinese student at the Tibetan rally posted about how she'd been misunderstood, but the situation quickly turned into what the Chinese call Rénròu Sōusuǒ. The 'human flesh search' originally just meant co-operating on research (in much the way that Reddit members did when trying to analyse images to find the Boston marathon bombers). However, it's come to mean a much more vigilante style of online investigation, where people try to identify someone ('doxing', as members of Anonymous term this kind of documentation when it's applied to them) and sometimes pursue them in the real world. The various 'revenge porn' and accusation sites that spring up online are, the writers suggest, somewhere between an unofficial wanted poster and a digital pillory. All of these fascinating stories concern real people who suffer the consequences of public indignation — even if we soon forget about them and move on to the next scandal.
Technology, the authors point out, is changing what scandal means, who it applies to, how we hear about it — and what happens when it emerges.
Technology is also changing who decides if a scandal is a story. Blogger Matt Drudge broke the story of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky because the Newsweek reporter who already had the story avoided publishing it earlier — he didn't want to be manipulated by the investigators, or by Lewinsky's friend who taped their conversations with the aim of bringing down the president, and was then told by his editor to continue investigating instead of committing it to print.
And when a rising star of the German political scene, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was accused in 2011 of plagiarising his doctoral thesis, several leading newspapers and magazines in Germany ran articles suggesting that either he hadn't done it or, if he had, that it didn't matter. While the government was busy downplaying the issue, a group of students, offended at the thought that plagiarism doesn't matter, set about documenting it in detail. Guttenberg apologised for any mistakes but denied copying anything and suggested that he was being victimised — a stance that led to a full academic investigation by the university and his resignation.
The Unleashed Scandal is a bold attempt to tie everything from Bradley Manning, Anthony Weiner, Abu Ghraib, Tiger Woods and Monica Lewinsky into the idea that we're losing control of our data and our image at the same time. If your behaviour comes to the attention of the scandal-seeking public, you've lost control of your reputation. That was true of the US military when Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning leaked a video of a helicopter attack to WikiLeaks and it's true of every 'internet celebrity' who has put embarrassing information online themselves or had it published without their knowledge.
If your behaviour comes to the attention of the scandal-seeking public, you've lost control of your reputation.
It's true of companies, too: a video that Greenpeace posted on YouTube ended up making Nestlé change policy (after making every possible mistake on social media). The video drew graphic attention to the destruction of the orang-utan's rainforest habitat when land was cleared to produce palm oil that ends up in KitKats. It did this by showing someone apparently biting into a severed orang-utan finger rather than a chocolate snack. Nestlé went through the now-familiar stages of denial, removing comments about the topic from its Facebook site, but ended up dropping suppliers involved in deforestation in what became a landmark Greenpeace social media campaign.
The details of these 'scandals' vary from fascinating to disturbing. The Unleashed Scandal takes an academic approach, looking at things in philosophical and linguistic terms, and it helps to be familiar with ideas like category errors and theories of discourse (although they're explained if you're not). On the other hand, while the book is certainly not salacious, going into the (sometimes graphic) details of all the scandals one after another can make you feel like you're intruding on the victims' privacy — which may be part of the point.
The book shows its German origins, not just in the occasionally odd phrasing but also in the examples. Everyone knows the stories of Monica Lewinsky and Julian Assange, but you may not remember Guttenberg as the politician accused of plagiarism. There's also the interesting question of what 'public' means in these situations: is 4 million views on a YouTube video (which is what Tricia Walsh-Smith's soap opera about her imminent divorce reached) famous or obscure these days?
Having said that, The Unleashed Scandal does a good job of pointing out how, in the digital age, embarrassment and disgrace can fly around the world before the unlucky target has even got out of bed, let alone got dressed and tried to nail down the truth. The authors don't offer any solutions, but they do document enough of these situations in detail to demonstrate that what we think of as public life has changed dramatically.