After ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,’ How Can We Be Decent Humans On the Internet?

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Two thoughts that I wish were expressed in concert more frequently:

The Internet is a tremendously empowering tool. Thanks to digital communication individual voices have more power than they’ve ever had.

And as Uncle Ben said, with power comes responsibility.

This, I think, is something that gets overlooked when we talk about how awesome it is that in the modern era all of us Twitter randos have, collectively, the same firepower as professional Hollywood marketers or fundraisers or even political activists.

Whatever power we have that we can use for good can just as easily be used for harm. Each of us has the capacity to unleash an angry mob on someone, intentionally or accidentally, in exactly the same way each of us has the capacity to gather a crowd to support a worthy cause. If anything, unleashing an angry mob is easier—anger being the emotion that most reliably moves us to action online.

Jon Ronson wrote about this in his “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” talking about famous cases of Internet rage that spiraled out of control. The key thing about the cases he covers in his book is that none of the outrage spirals he describes started over “nothing.” In each case there was a legitimate grievance, something worth getting pissed off about. Justine Sacco’s joke about AIDS was a crappy, insensitive joke—and she had the misfortune to tweet an insensitive AIDS joke just before getting on an international flight, with a Twitter profile saying she worked in PR, making her an irresistible target for mockery. Lindsey Stone’s photo mocking a sign calling for respect at Arlington National Cemetery was likewise crude and thoughtless, something that she should have taken down and apologized for.

But the problem with both of those cases was scale. One person, or two people, or a dozen people telling you you made a bad joke is a proportional response to that bad joke. Thousands of people telling you you made a bad joke, for years on end, until that one incident comes to dominate your reputation and ends up making it impossible for you to hold a job or go out in public—that’s disproportionate by any measure.

Moreover, the disproportionate retribution comes arbitrarily. Thousands of people make jokes far worse than Sacco or Stone did on social media every day but don’t have the bad luck to get noticed by a blogger with enough reach to make them go viral. Millions of people do worse things every day with far fewer consequences for their lives because their transgressions don’t make national headlines.

Okay, you might be thinking, but the ethical question of what happens to an ordinary person’s life when you turn them into national news isn’t relevant to most of us. It’s certainly relevant to those of us who work at media companies with national or global reach, and I’ve certainly got a lot to say about the ethical problems with gossip-and-gaffe-based clickbait “journalism.”

But this isn’t just a concern for people who live in Manhattan and write for A-list websites. Every national-shaming campaign starts by definition with individual random Facebook or Twitter users sharing something they deem shocking or outrageous to their friends. It always starts with something innocuous, something that we all do and that we’ve all been doing since we got social media accounts—screencapping something ridiculous and putting it on our own wall going, “Can you believe this?”

I’m starting to come around to the belief that these innocuous little point-and-laugh affairs aren’t as harmless as we pretend they are. Even in the 99 percent of cases where no one from Gawker or The Huffington Post takes your mocking Facebook post or Tweet and turns it into headline news, drawing negative attention to someone does damage to that person, and frequently does so out of proportion to whatever the initial transgression was.

It’s just as common or more so for traditional religions to label gossip a sin as it is for them to condemn fornication or adultery. It’s a prohibition that seems far more archaic than a ban on having sex outside of wedlock in a society where a vast portion of our economy more or less runs on gossip.

And yet we should probably pay far more attention to what ancient scholars had to say about the dangers of gossip than their opinions about what kind of meat we should eat or what kind of sex we should have. The metaphor that kept coming to mind—one that goes back at least as far as the New Testament—when I read “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” was that drawing negative attention to people and exposing them to public ridicule is like playing with fire; it’s fundamentally irresponsible because you’re potentially unleashing a force you won’t be able to control.

We all know of cases where someone’s harassment and abuse didn’t make national headlines but was still pervasive enough to drive someone into social isolation, depression, even suicide. When it happens to children or teenagers we tend to use the word “bullying,” but the dynamic doesn’t fundamentally change after people turn eighteen.

It takes the same pattern. Someone starts publicly attacking or mocking someone—often for a legitimate reason, because the person did something wrong, or because there’s something genuinely funny (funny in a mean way, but funny) about them. Other times the reason for the initial attack is totally unjustified—based on rank bigotry or a weird misunderstanding or personal petty cruelty or just plain random chance.

The point is it doesn’t matter. Regardless of what started the attack, other people join in, because it’s fun to be part of a group and it’s socially validating to voice opinions that the people around you share. Eventually the mockery and/or abuse reaches a point where the connection to whatever started it is no longer clear; it escalates to a level where there’s people clearly “taking it too far”; and, eventually, it has enough of an impact on the victim’s life where someone pulls up short and asks, “Wait, are we the bad guys here?” But by then, of course, the damage has been done.

It shouldn’t have to reach the point of someone taking or attempting to take their own life for us to say that a social dynamic like that is toxic—but all too often people will defend their constitutional, God-given right to engage in “honest criticism” or “harmless satire” right up to that point.

People on Tumblr defended their right to keep piling on one particular fan of the cartoon Steven Universe for the subtle, coded “racism” in her fan art until she ended up in the hospital for a suicide attempt. People think of outing and mocking women who do porn as just part of the risks of the industry, until you confront them with people who’ve killed themselves due to the constant abuse. Way back before modern social media, when I was a student at Swarthmore College back in the early 2000s, people on the anonymous forum the Daily Joltthought it was hilarious to make a running “inside joke” of mocking one particular student for being a useless drunk, right up until he was found dead in his room. (The evidence of that inside joke, thankfully, disappeared along with the Daily Jolt itself.)

None of this is new. My alma mater Swarthmore was home to a case of campus bullying back in the 1950s that culminated in a grisly murder. But the Internet greatly accelerates and amplifies abuse—it makes joining in a pileon on an unpopular person something you can do from home, in bed, with a few keystrokes while you’re distracted with something else. Online communication makes it easy to be thoughtless and impulsive, which is what makes it so dangerous.

Twitter isn’t the only place this happens—it happens everywhere—but Twitter is an instructive case because the features that make Twitter so fun and addictive are exactly what make it so toxic. The ease with which Twitter invites you to just jump into a conversation with a stranger, the speed with which a tweet can “blow up” and go viral outside of its original context, the way Twitter attracts a crowd to whatever topic is currently “trending” in an attempt to accelerate the trend—all of this is tailor-made to make it easy to put someone on blast and ruin their day.

People who use Twitter have created a vocabulary for the horrible things that happen on Twitter every day; we talk about avoiding “dogpiling” people or “siccing your followers” on them, imagining Twitter “randos” as feral animals we barely have under our control.

Because that’s what it’s like. I’ve seen it from both directions, as someone who’s been subjected to ridiculous levels of abuse on Twitter for the flimsiest of reasons and as someone who’s “called out” other people to my 20,000-plus followers for what I thought were good and valid reasons only to come to regret it.

You can think you’re just making an honest criticism or poking harmless fun at someone. You might not even be there for when the jokes pile on each other or the level of vitriol rises to the point of people cursing out your target at length, sending them crude photoshops or making violent threats. But by setting someone up for public exposure you created that situation—like a kid playing with matches, you can’t control what the mob does once the mob gathers.

Nowadays I more or less see horrible mob situations happen every day—vile slurs being thrown, people being blasted with hundreds of messages they can’t possibly respond to, people dividing themselves into “camps” or “factions” throwing vitriol at each other. (Right now I’m watching a massive dogpile develop among Richard Dawkins’ followers trolling and abusing an academic who wrote a paper he happened to disapprove of, and that’s not even the worst one from this week.)

As a writer and as someone who gets angry about politics quite often, this is something I’ve wrestled with, a lot. I do believe that “call outs” have a place. Whenever I got mad at something online and posted a link to someone else’s blog to “light them up” to my followers it was always with the greater good in mind, thinking that the alternative to the call out was to just sit back and let injustice continue in the name of “civility.”

I’m not advocating that. I will continue to be angry and rude and uncivil in the face of things I consider to be pressing injustices where I believe public scrutiny and public pressure can make things better. When it comes to behaviors and patterns that are worth attacking and mocking I refuse to hold back.

The difference is whether, in the course of attacking a behavior or pattern, I’m attacking a specific person—and whether the collateral damage to that specific person is worth itvto make whatever point I’m trying to make.

Whether it’s writing a piece for publication or just sharing a Facebook post with my friends I ask myself—am I going to put someone on blast as a result of sharing this? Who am I holding up to public scrutiny by sharing something—is it someone in a position of power who could be persuaded to make an important change, or is it just some random person I’m making an example of?

Stuff I try to do now that takes time and effort but makes it easier to live with myself:

  • Taking the time to scrub personal information before sharing an example of negative behavior.
  • Avoiding naming names when it isn’t necessary to get my point across, especially naming names of people who aren’t already well-known and don’t already have a support network.
  • Making sure that even when I’m voicing support for someone I’m not doing it in a way that paints a target on their back for people out to get them.
  • When I do criticize someone—someone in power, someone who’s actively engaging in harmful behavior that needs to be stopped–trying to limit the scope of the criticism rather than turning it into a no-holds-barred opportunity to tear that person down.

It’s hard. It goes against the grain of what feels natural on social media—what both human nature and the optimized-for-”engagement” design of these platforms push us to do. I still screw it up all the time.

Most of the time there’s no obvious fallout from online “drama”—most of the time there’s no suicide attempt, there’s no headline news, there’s no one hounded out of their job. Mostly it’s just a creeping emotional numbness linked to a certain aggressive hypervigilance that comes from knowing that an explosion of “drama” is always just around the corner ready to leap out when you least expect it—and the more visible you get the higher the likelihood becomes that the next instance of “drama” will be something truly ugly and unsettling (like, say, someone impersonating your dead father).

But I’ve experienced enough of it in just the past two short years of being “Internet famous”—and talked to enough people who’ve gotten it way worse than I have—to be complacent about it. There are steps lawmakers can take to make things better, steps platform owners and designers can take—but it starts with you and me asking ourselves “What is it I mean to accomplish?” every time we click “Post.” Asking ourselves what the negative consequences might be not just for ourselves but for other people. Taking the power that we have seriously instead of treating the Internet as a playground where everything is open season for lulz.

No one wants to hear that. Gossip is too much fun, there’s too many easy targets online to make jokes about, everyone likes to watch sparks fly.

But I’d rather be the wet blanket at the party than be the one watching a forest fire consume someone else’s life and knowing I was holding the match.

This piece was originally published on Flavorwire’s sister site, Everup, where it’s the first installment of Arthur Chu’s new advice column, “How to Be a Decent Human On the Internet.”