I briefly became a pack hunter in high school, during a weird moment in which I decided to voluntarily play sport. Also weird was my eagerness to get involved (I’d normally hang back, in total fear of my glasses being smashed). I remember the moment we ganged up on an opposing team member – he’d gone off on his own, and was desperately tapping the ball forward as we clustered on all sides. He was tackled by two people and he tumbled hard on the gym floor and I felt wonderful, and totally guilt-free. He was our enemy, and hey, I didn’t throw my feet under his.
I’ve just finished reading a book by Jon Ronson, called ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed‘, and there’s a line in that book that highlights the fact that I really did play a part in the unfair downfall of my opponent:
“The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche”
In the book, Ronson outlines the full impact of public shaming on people, including depression, perpetual unemployment and an online presence that will be tainted forever. He outlines the shape and format of social media shaming excess – the horrid and enduring cases of over-bearing retribution.
But Ronson spends little time examining where the line ought to be drawn. There’s an upside to collectively shouting down someone whose words and actions create physical and mental harm, weighed up against the problematic fact we’re currently extremely bad at identifying cases that fit these criteria.
Consider the producer of a controversial ABC Catalyst program on the ‘risks’ of WiFi, who blamed Twitter for the publication of refutations against the episode:
“Twitter is renowned for being more of a lynch mob than a considered jury. The online backlash was irrelevant to the more important scientific debate”
I’ve argued that presenting fearful content about technology does more harm than good – yet, criticism of this approach published by scientists on social media is dismissed, based solely on the medium on which it’s posted. People who face reasoned criticism use Ronson’s stories of excess as a tool for dismissing an entire medium.
We’re grappling awkwardly with the format of shame in Australia. It’s not something unique to social media, and it isn’t a phenomenon practised solely by one side of politics, or by adherents to an ideology or worldview. There are many examples of traditional media and powerful groups abusing the immense power they have accrued over the decades, alongside examples of social media acting as a powerful balancing agent.
Early last year, I ran the words of a columnist in a major national news outlet through a plagiarism checker, and discovered he’d lifted sections of a controversial column on domestic violence. He’d been sacked a few years earlier from Fairfax for plagiarism, and so it seemed fairly reasonable to publish a quick blog post detailing what I’d found. I knew it would get attention, but within a few hours of posting my blog (which was widely shared on social media), this came up:
“The psychiatrist and columnist Tanveer Ahmed has been sacked by the Australian for plagiarism – just two years after being dropped by the Sydney Morning Herald for a series of similar cases. Ahmed was exposed by ABC TV’s Media Watch in 2012 and consequently lost his regular spot as a commentator for Fairfax Media. On Monday the blogger Ketan Joshi accused Ahmed on Twitter of plagiarising the US political website Prospect in his latest article for the Australian, a controversial opinion piece on domestic violence”
I knew at the time that it would have been wrong to have said nothing because I was worried someone might lose access to their lucrative media soapbox, but reading that led to the instant creation of a whirling black hole right in the core of my viscera. I felt guilty and horrified, that night.
In retrospect, this was more a case of whistle-blowing rather than public shaming. Plagiarism is treated with severity not by the salivating, baying masses, but by editors and institutions. Accepting payment for content you’ve stolen from others actually sucks. But I learnt that deciding whether to release something like that into the world is like choosing between a feather and a sledgehammer. It still felt weird.
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson describes the story of Jonah Lehrer, an American journalist who was caught out self-plagiarising and fabricating content. His story mirrors that of Ahmed’s, including the public apology and subsequent relapse. Ahmed is still a prolific commentator. Despite weirdly claiming that being caught out plagiarising counts as a ‘group lynching from a baying feminist mob-ette’, his work is still published regularly, and he features on prime-time television.
It seems that often, in Australia, social media outrage emerges as a response to someone using a powerful and unassailable platform to punch down. The curious acknowledgement of power differentials in social media action might be the blurry beginnings of a collective and fully digital moral compass.
Ronson’s point still stands – social media can be a horrible conduit for punitive and primitive excesses. But oddly, in Australia, I get the feeling we don’t indulge as often as we might. Rather, we use social media to jab at the powerful and the entrenched, and there seems to be a sentiment of fairness and equity steering the mob. So often, the social media mob rises up to protect those who are already suffering.
Duncan Storrar stood up during an episode of a weekly show in which audience members ask questions, and, unsurprisingly, asked a question. The question itself wasn’t particularly unusual for Q&A – it blended a personal story with sentiment on a key issue:
“I’ve got a disability and a low education – that means I’ve spent my whole life working off a minimum wage. You’re going to lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life. That means that I get to say to my little girls, “Daddy’s not broke this weekend, we can go to the pictures.” Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift. Why don’t I get it? Why do they get it?”
Two surprising things happened in response to this unsurprising question.
First, a fundraising campaign was created and widely shared on Twitter, with the aim of giving Duncan Storrar’s family a ‘helping hand’. It was shared, along with the hashtag #IStandWithDuncan, by a generally left-leaning crowd. Very soon after that, several News Corporation media outlets launched a fierce and stunningly vindictive campaign against Duncan Storrar:
“If a person shows the powers to be out of touch people [then] … they will be dropped, probed and attacked in any way with no thought to the mental wellbeing of their children. [And] … this exposing of your life and every discrepancy in it will be published ruining your job prospects (would you give me a job after a Google search comes up with the headlines of last week and will be used as a example to keep people like me quiet). There have been serious consequences from the decisions that the News Corp press has taken in my so-called story”
Ronson’s mostly-justified decrying of excessive social media punishment is often cited and praised by traditional media outlets, such as The Australian. The book is seen as a useful buttress for people who still use the word ‘cyberspace’ to decry and dismiss an increasingly serious and dominant form of communication:
“I see cyberspace as the new religion, the perceived wrongdoers as Christians in the Colosseum and Twitter, Facebook and others as the lions”
Yet, the shaming of Duncan Storrar didn’t emerge from a furious, baying mob. It was planned and enacted by a comparatively tiny group of middle-aged men in an air-conditioned office, with access to an enormous, nation-spanning platform and millions of Australian eyes. The social media mob, in this instance, raised a sizeable amount of money, which will go partly to Storrar’s children’s education, and partly to a range of charities. Storrar has certainly committed some unpleasant crimes, and him being co-opted into a campaign on social media played a role in triggering News Corp’s response. But neither of these things justify the shaming enacted by the news outlets over the days following the show.
Q&A seems to currently exist as the place where the tectonic plates of conflicting ideologies collide, and grate violently against one another. Caught up in the resultant earthquakes are people like Storrar, or Zaky Mallah. The message from News outlets is loud and clear: asking the wrong questions, and being poor or brown at the same time, will result in the release of their unstoppable shaming juggernaut, in front of a national audience, for a week, or more.
There are a variety of large, powerful groups hoping to use their power to push down minorities they perceive as a threat. An anonymously-authored Facebook page, called ‘STOP SAFE schools coalition’, tried recently to sabotage a same-sex high school formal event run by a youth-led organisation called Minus18:
It was amazingly cruel. The reprehensible and sinister people behind the Facebook page wanted to buy up tickets to stop same-sex teens from experiencing transformational rites-of-passage high school formal events. The outcome, however, was surprising- as an antidote to the fairly standard expression of homophobic hatred, Minus18 created a crowdfunding campaign and raised $48,700.
Religious groups opposed to equal marriage continue to focus vitriol on a group that’s suffered serious discrimination for decades – I don’t think this is something that’s cured with crowdfunding. But it’s another fascinating example of failed shaming, and the power of collective kindness.
If a powerful group is breezily issuing statements that cause harm to an already-disadvantaged minority, social media can be a powerful way of pushing back against the cruelty being funnelled through itself. Last week the Facebook page ‘AFL memes’ published a racist meme comparing a gorilla shot at a zoo to AFL star Adam Goodes. It was flagged and reported to Facebook many times, including by myself.
It was hopeless; Facebook won’t take down the most vile abuse imaginable,so it was unlikely they’d take action. But the owner of the page eventually took it down, soon after an AFL spokesman threatened to sue them for infringing intellectual property laws:
“The page’s administrators told Fairfax Media they had deleted the images themselves. “I deleted because our page was getting a lot of reports and the best way was to delete them!” an administrator said. “Those posts was just for fun, to make people laugh, that was not racism.””
This presumably didn’t pass through the mind of the admin, but using racism to make people ‘laugh with that’ (sic) and feel great still counts as racism (this is why “I shot that person because I wanted their money and who doesn’t love a bit of money right?!” doesn’t get you off a murder charge).
Being blind to the harm created by posting and sharing racist abuse is surprisingly common in Australia. It’s the same cultural phenomenon fuels casual racism in the workplace. Had it not been for the flurry of reports, themselves inspired by people alerting others on Twitter and Facebook, the tone-deaf page admins would have left up the abuse. Ideally, we’d inject better education about how racist content causes real, quantifiable and permanent harm, but this works, for now.
There are so many outlets, institutions and groups that enjoy incumbency, and abuse their privilege on a regular basis. Blokey white dudes being proud about an 80% laughter-and-joy success rate from the direct psychological abuse of Indigenous Australians is a fairly clear example of this.
Social media can fuel a response that doesn’t need to be excessive or mean-spirited. For some, it’s the only tool available in fighting back against those who love punching down. Lucy Thomas, the CEO of a youth movement against hate and bullying, was recently abused by her Uber driver. The exchange is horrible, and Uber immediately responded to her tweet to signify that they’re investigating.
“Why do you think it’s okay to use terms like ‘faggot’, ‘abo’, ‘spastic retard’, while you’re driving an Uber? Why do you think that’s okay, John?”
“I can do anything I want if I am prepared to suffer the consequences”
“Are you prepared to suffer the consequences?”
“What, are you going to give me a one rating and make a complaint? And when I write my report about two faggots who don’t like being called faggots, then what are they going to say?”
“Well, what do you think they’re going to say?”
“I have no clue, and I don’t care”
“Why would I?”
“Well, you’re hurting people”
“I’m ‘hurting people‘?….get out of my car!”
“Because I just asked you to and if you don’t, I will get out and drag you out”
John the Uber driver knew that complaints and low ratings weren’t going to do anything. But hasn’t factored in the technology recording his voice, or the digital platforms that will be used to share his sneering nastiness. Social media has helped expose a moment of cruelty, doled out by someone in a position of power. He’s been sacked by Uber.
Shame has been catalysed by the speed of digital social media tools. Ronson points out in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that we discarded public physical punishment long ago, but we’re still coming to terms with the cruelty and permanence of psychological harm as a tool for collective vengeance.
Ronson’s book is fascinating, and he does detail many instances of shaming that don’t involve social media. Some criticisms of his book seem unfair; people spy him decrying excessive punishment and mistake that for an attempt to excuse the original wrongdoing. This isn’t the case – his plea, for us to cut off the thrill of pack hunting and excessive social media shaming, is important.
But the use of his work as an anti-social-media pre-formed argument has resulted in people confusing the reasonable act of decrying harmful statements with social-media-shaming. This is stupid.
You’re more likely to be attacked by a major media outlet than you are to suffer at the hands of the social media mob. The blame-Twitter argument acts as grease for a transition powerful people make regularly: they switch from gleefully punching down to feeling a sense of victimhood, when many people tell them that they’ve said or done something shitty. But we need social media, because it’s a new, powerful way of calling out unfairness where we see it.