Curing Social Media of Its Outrage Addiction May Start on Campus

04/08/2015 02:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

The problem with books that diagnose great societal failures--from the housing bubble to civil liberties violations in the "war on terror," and everything in between--is that they tend to come out after the moral panic or shameful event has largely, if not entirely, passed. Thus, they allow us to look back at the people we were a few years before and say "tut-tut, weren't they foolish." That's what makes Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, so terrific: it was released at precisely the time it is needed most. It makes no bones about the fact that we are part of the problem of an always-connected society of social media users that is increasingly creating "a war on other people's flaws."

Ronson takes on a culture of outrage (or, as Ryan Holiday at The Observer calls it, "Outrage Porn") that has emerged on the Internet and has grown increasingly mob-like, mindless, and vicious. A friend of Ronson, who tellingly preferred not to be named, put it this way, "I suddenly feel with social media like I'm tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment." Ronson examines several famous cases in the past few years in which private figures saw their lives and careers effectively destroyed after news of their alleged transgression got out on Twitter.

Ronson covers the famous case of Justine Sacco, who, while taxiing to the runway for an 11-hour flight to South Africa, tweeted "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" The joke initially fell flat as none of Sacco's 170 Twitter followers acknowledged the tweet. But 11 hours and a new continent later, Sacco turned on her phone to find that she was the number one trending topic on Twitter and the target of a massive social media mob's attempt to serve Sacco "justice." Ronson observes, "It seemed obvious that her tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn't racist, but a reflexive comment on white privilege--on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune from life's horrors." She lost her job and her life was utterly transformed.

Ronson also explores the bizarre story of "donglegate," a complicated story in which a public shamer was transformed into a shamee, resulting in lost jobs on all sides and a backlash of misogynist Internet outrage, all arising out of a series of possibly misunderstood jokes and a few tweets. He also deals with the case of Lindsey Stone, perhaps the only interviewee who comes off as otherwise almost saintly, who regrettably posed for a picture at Arlington National Cemetery of her pretending to mock a sign telling her to be quiet and respectful by giving it the finger and pretending to shout. This was apparently part of a series of jokes in which she and a friend decided to willfully disobey whatever signs told them, but this time it resulted in a tidal wave of scorn and even death threats.

One of the only public figures highlighted in Ronson's book is Jonah Lehrer, who disgraced himself after it came out that he had fabricated several Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine. While the story of Lehrer being exposed by journalist Michael Moynihan makes for good reading, it represents a somewhat different case in that it deals with an author who would make himself quite wealthy and was caught in the act of engaging in sloppy and even fraudulent journalism.

As I think Ronson would agree, there are cases in which public shaming is appropriate. Abuses of one's power or authority would certainly be near the top of that list. Indeed, public shaming, as Ronson discovered in talking to famous public shaming judge Ted Poe, can be distressingly effective, and, when the other options are legal action, might even be preferred.

But even those of us whose activism relies to a degree on calling out abuses of power through social media have sometimes been alarmed by a strange change of tone over the past few years. As Ronson explains, at first Twitter shaming seemed primarily related to real transgressions with an actual victim, but then it seemed to progress into speech policing and then into almost unhinged crusades sometimes even against clear misstatements or gaffes. In the Justine Sacco case, Ronson points out how people "chose to willfully misunderstand" what her joke actually meant, preferring instead to play into an oversimplified Internet drama in which those in the Twitter mob see themselves as a "magnificent hero" fighting a "sickening villain."

As a First Amendment lawyer, I believe that speech that is highly critical, insulting, and even condemning, should absolutely be protected. However, many in the Twitter mob opt to express themselves in ways that have never been protected, including with threats of rape and murder. So, for example, calling Rolling Stone to the mat for its unforgivably shoddy reporting would strike us both as a legitimate target of internet scorn, but nothing justifies it morphing into threats of physical violence.

Furthermore, in my most recent (very short) book Freedom From Speech, I step back a little from pure First Amendment analysis and try to get into cultural aspects of freedom of speech that make the exchange of ideas be more productive, effective, and valuable. Some of the cultural norms that people need to remember when engaging with one another include reserving judgment, giving the benefit of the doubt, waiting to examine evidence, understanding that a truly diverse society means people express themselves in wildly different ways, and accepting that you may not really understand what the other person is getting at. These kind of cultural norms must not and cannot be legally enforced, but Ronson's book is a much-needed slap in the face to remind us to, at minimum, do a little more reading and thinking before joining a Twitter mob.

Ronson's book has an almost unsettling level of emotional honesty and candor. He consistently shows the mixed motives and emotional conflicts we have in so many situations, and he is especially good at showing those conflicts within himself. His recognition that mixed motives are the rule rather than the exception is why I tend to bristle at the perfunctory addition of "while certainly this person had the best of intentions" before someone explains an abuse of power, an act of censorship, or a restrictive new law. True, most people think what they do is "good" and you're unlikely to gain a lot of followers by saying, "in the name of evil, follow me to achieve unjust goals in unfair ways!" But, as comedian Gilbert Gottfried says about the Twitter mob in an upcoming documentary (full disclosure: I'm also in the documentary), people allege they are offended not only to right wrongs but also to, in essence, "pat themselves on the back" and show the world that they are good people. The "feedback loop," as Ronson describes the phenomenon of people gathering to reinforce each other as righteous crusaders, can lead to a mob mentality on social media.

Given my 15-year history of defending free speech on campus, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that colleges and universities seem to be teaching a generation of students some of the bad intellectual habits that make the Twitter mobs possible.

I see plenty of examples where universities and even, sometimes, professors willfully misunderstand the intention of a joke or comment and decide to react with outrage. Take the University of Iowa, for example. This past fall, a visiting associate professor from Turkey displayed a provocative anti-racist piece of art in the center of campus with the intention of creating a discussion about racial issues in the United States. Anyone taking a minute to honestly look at the art or, certainly, to talk to the artist, would have understood that the art was intended to criticize racism. But in the face of student outrage, the university ignored and dismissed the artist's intention. This willful misunderstanding was again on on display at Purdue University following the creation of a music video by engineering students that parodied white rapper Macklemore's "Thrift Shop." The students, who use the video to geek out about engineering, were accused of racism, despite the fact the video is so tame it borders on adorable. Even the ironic Internet meme #thanksobama was not safe for one cartoonist at the University of Alabama after he drew a cartoon jokingly blaming Obama for Alabama's loss in their rival football game against Auburn University.

But rarely has the instruction to willfully misunderstand been made more clear than it was by one administrator at Bucknell University, who proclaimed "that the context really doesn't matter" in an ongoing case where students were expelled for allegedly using racial slurs on a radio show. Bucknell, a private university in Pennsylvania, has refused to reveal any additional information about the students and what they said. But if they were, for example, using racial slurs in order to mock racism and racists, like the late and great comedian Lenny Bruce used to do, then context is absolutely pivotal. The idea that "context doesn't matter" is not something a scholarly institution should be teaching anyone. Context always matters.

As for teaching a generation to think of society as an oversimplified battle of magnificent heroes versus sickening villains, I talk at length in my first book about how universities teach students (to mangle, ahem, I mean borrow a term from Joseph Campbell) to create a "hero narrative about themselves." My experiences in my "Cause Lawyering" class in law school played into this narrative of society being nothing more than a tale of evil oppressive villains versus the helpless. It was reinforced by heavy-handed programs like one at the University of Delaware in 2007 that aimed to correct students' beliefs, and more recently at Ithaca College where the student government aims to create an anonymous microaggression reporting system. You can see the fingerprints of this kind of thinking all over both "donglegate" and the Sacco cases.

If we want to realize social media's full promise of massive unprecedented global conversation conducted in real time, we should be teaching our students how to argue both thoughtfully and effectively. There will still be angry Twitter campaigns (as there should be), but hopefully they'll be directed at actual injustices, abuses of power, and events with real victims, as opposed to jokes that fall flat, failed attempts at candor, or overheard mildly dirty jokes.

I am still a great booster of social media and I still see in it a great promise to reveal human beings as they actually are, both for good and bad. Ronson has done a real service in his book. If we heed its message, we may be able to better realize the full promise of this vast, new technology for knowing each other and ourselves.