If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)
This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )
Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences. A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?
Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people.
Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000.
But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album.
I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’
In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco.
Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing.
Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.
While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about his latest Bollywood film, Bombay Velvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.
A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.
In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.
Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599
17 May 2015