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Odds and Ends: When Tweets Attack
Odds and Ends: When Tweets Attack

Can a post ruin your life? Jon Ronson examines social media’s ugly underbelly.

Rick Tulka

Journalist Jon Ronson has written best-selling books about psychopaths, extremists, and secret military units. He's always been an observer, but that changed with his latest work, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. The book explores why people shame others on social media and what happens to those whose lives get crushed online—and sometimes offline—because of a clumsily worded joke or poorly expressed comment. It's like watching a slow-motion car crash—one you hope to never experience—but after writing the book, Ronson can't look away from the wreckage. When CURRENTS spoke with him over the summer, he had been fielding media inquiries about Walter Palmer—the Minnesota dentist accused of killing Cecil, a lion that lived in an African national park. "Whether or not Walter Palmer deserves to be attacked is not the only issue. What does hunting him on social media do to us? And is that healthy?" Amid writing screenplays, Ronson plans to stay on this subject. He may launch a podcast to continue the discussion.

Has writing this book changed how you use Twitter?

I use it much, much less. It's a cold, hard, judgmental, intimidating place to be. Somebody sent me a tweet that read something like "It's funny to think that something I write in this box might ruin my life." That person is right to feel worried. With Twitter there's a war against people who are misusing their privilege. That's good in many ways because we should be upset at people who misuse their privilege. The problem is that "misuse of privilege" has become a massively devalued term. It's become a kind of free pass to tear apart pretty much anybody, including people who have no privilege. A woman who survived the Amtrak train derailment [in Philadelphia in May 2015] was torn apart on social media because she tweeted about wanting her violin back from the wreckage. She was perceived to have misused her privilege, because she wasn't dead.

How has writing this book affected you?

Hugely. The shaming that I would do in the early days of social media is similar to what we do in mainstream journalism all the time. So many times I have interviewed somebody who has been perfectly reasonable and then said one stupid thing, and the whole interview becomes about that one stupid thing. It's like the hunt is on for somebody's inner awfulness—that you can lead a good ethical life, but some bad phrasing in a tweet or an interview can overwhelm it all. This book has taught me that I can't do that anymore. Most people haven't done something that's so bad they deserve to be swallowed up by it.

Is this a confluence of laziness and aggression? People can hurl 140-character barbs, things that they would never say in person.

The irony is that it's the desire to be compassionate—or to be seen as compassionate—that leads so many people to tear apart another person on social media. Most people think they're doing it for moral reasons. But people have to be able to distinguish between serious and nonserious transgressions. I've used this line from a review of my book: "The act of shaming is not a launch pad for social change but rather a cathartic alternative to it." People are failing to see the difference between those two things.

You seem pained by all of it.

I had lunch with a friend I've known for 20 years, and he said that I seemed to care more about this book. I said, that's because this gets to the heart of what I believe in—that you need to understand people, not condemn them. None of this makes me a sap who defends privileged people. We're losing the thing that I care most about, which is empathy for everybody.

So we're all becoming psychopaths?!

Social media is making us all higher on the psychopathic checklist than we were beforehand. No question. It's robbing us of our capacity for empathy.

—Interview by Theresa Walker




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