Two apparently unrelated things coincided in my life recently. First, I picked up Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Then, while walking to and from the cafe where I was reading that book, I listened to the first season of Serial, a podcast about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the questionable guilt of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
And they gave me a lot to think about when it comes to online investigations and Twitter justice.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed looks into the resurgence of public shaming in the internet age. It explores the stories of people like Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted about AIDs before getting on a flight to South Africa — those who go from being unknowns to having sudden world-wide infamy, and losing their jobs and many other parts of their lives as a result of the mass shaming on websites like Twitter.
Twitter storms happen all the time, but nothing is quite like a “public shaming” on Twitter, where people get into a frenzy about a wrongdoer and revel in the schadenfreude that their bad karma has finally caught up with them, thanks, in part, to the power of the internet. Although Ronson mentions cases like Gamergate, he focusses on the idea that WE are the ones doing this public shaming. It’s not a cruel vindictive “them,” in these cases, but the “we” that Ronson identifies with — people who see themselves as progressive, as liberal, even as campaigners against injustice. Righteous crusaders, descending from the sky in the name of justice.
The book’s perspective is that it all goes too far. People do stupid things to an audience of a few followers, perhaps even thinking that it’s only accessible to a select few, and end up losing their jobs, becoming unemployable, being hounded and hated, and terrified that anyone they meet might google them. Sometimes this happens because they’re being overtly offensive. Sometimes it seems to be genuine ignorance or naivety. Sometimes it seems to happen because humor and sarcasm don’t always translate to 140 characters on the internet. Whatever the cause, it’s a disaster that stretches far beyond the online world.
I’ve written before about how much I hate the Twitter mob mentality, and how I think it’s rarely if ever a useful tool. When people are bringing awareness to, say, Martin Shkreli raising the cost of drugs from $13.50 a tablet to $750 per tablet, then there is a clear potential change in mind — the bad publicity could bring the prices back down. But generally, this approach doesn’t create any real change. It just crushes one “problematic” individual like an ant so that the crusaders can feel like they’ve righted something in an unjust world. It’s an understandable impulse, but it almost always happens not because someone did something harmful to others (like the drugs example), but because they did something incredibly dumb. We decide they’re guilty of being a Bad Person, and the internet works together to tear down their life in punishment.
It’s not just an internet “mob,” as that suggests mindlessness, or a kind of mass hysteria. It’s an investigative team. In these public shaming cases, it’s people finding out where the target works, who their friends and family are, what their phone number or home address is, with the findings then reported to the internet at large, so other people can choose to act on them if they wish. In the case of Justine Sacco, it’s people finding out what flight she’s on and tracking it in real time. People going to the airport to take a photo of her at arrivals. And among this fact gathering, there’s an effort to find more evidence of the person’s moral turpitude, to further justify this punishment.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Serial and the case of Adnan Syed. The podcast focuses on the question of whether Adnan is innocent, and, if he is, who killed Hae Min Lee. After many hours of content, the podcast can only conclude “we don’t know.” It has theories, as listeners have their own theories, but there are too many inconsistencies, and too little evidence, to solve those big questions.
But as we listen, we can’t help trying to pull all the evidence together in our heads and make judgements. “Jay is totally lying. HE did it. No, wait, Asia McClean is totally lying to cover up for Adnan. Adnan was probably guilty. No, actually, there was no way it was Adnan… except that thing was kind of suspicious, so maybe it was him…” and on and on as you listen. This inevitably leads to Reddit forums and the like, where people analyze the case and try to find The Truth. They put the issue to the internet court, finding the Facebooks of people mentioned in the podcast, digging for more information, trying to succeed where police and investigative journalists failed, and find the solid, unquestionable truth.
Which is, of course, impossible. Random strangers on the internet can’t know better than people deeply informed on the situation after a few hours of interviews and a bit of googling, even if their combined powers are pretty mighty. Events after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, when Reddit declared an innocent man guilty and harassed his family, are proof enough of that. But we want to believe that it’s possible. The internet has given power to that common sensation that we, the observers, know best — the sensation that makes us shake our heads and shout at the TV when reality show contestants make mistakes, or think “If I were them, I wouldn’t wear THAT” while passing someone on the street. The internet gives us the opportunity and community needed to act on those detached opinions, to give those detached opinions real power and consequence.
And in a world filled with injustice, it allows us to feel like we have the power to make the world fairer, in some small way. To make sure that the racist, or the selfish, or the callous suffer consequences for their behavior. To determine whether an innocent man has been locked away unjustly, or whether he’s truly guilty to put the case to rest. It gives us the numbers to make things more black and white.
But in the end we know very little about the situations we’re reacting to, beyond the tiny scraps that have filtered through to us. An image here, a public profile there. We think we’re doing something good, that we’re righting wrongs, but we can never really know what’s going on. Sometimes this means some people close to an old murder get people stalking their Facebook. Sometimes, as happened with the Boston marathon bombing, it means the internet accuses innocent people of real crimes based on no evidence at all. But most commonly, it means that regular people have their lives destroyed by their fifteen minutes of infamy and are left to struggle to pick up the pieces long after the internet has moved on.