Jon Ronson is optimistic that people can be nicer. It's only been a few days since the release of the acclaimed writer's latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. But already, the book, which provides a riveting yet deeply unsettling examination of the trauma experienced by individuals castigated over social media, has inspired widespread discussion about the need to dial down the vitriol.
He interviews high-profile pariahs such as Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone, people who lost their jobs and became instant social outcasts after, respectively, making a tone-deaf AIDS joke and taking an irreverent photo at the U.S. military's Arlington National Cemetery. The repercussions of their unfortunate but ultimately victimless blunders offer a terrifying glimpse at how anyone can wind up a target.
"My sort of naive and somewhat grandiose view on it is that … the wind is going to start blowing in another direction a little bit," Ronson says in a phone interview, noting that Monica Lewinsky's recent re-emergence in the media has contributed to the recent rally for kinder behaviour.
Lewinsky, of course, is the former White House intern whose affair with then-U.S. president Bill Clinton launched her to notoriety in 1998. She opened up about the impact of her public humiliation at a TED talk in Vancouver last month, revealing it made her contemplate suicide. Calling for an end to "public shaming as a bloodsport," she appealed for empathy and compassion.
While public humiliation has been seen throughout history, the Internet has amplified its effect. As Ronson tells me, "Everybody is human, and I think the more we realize that … I think it's going to be harder to, you know, destroy people."
If only the solution were so simple.
As targets of online floggers share their experiences, we're becoming more aware of the toll of shaming. But advocating for compassion won't stop the blood lust. Let's put it this way: If you were stirred by Lewinsky's appeal or feel pity for the subjects in Ronson's book, chances are you were never the type to hurl threats or vile insults at strangers in the first place. If you're upset by bullies, trolls and shamers, you're probably not one of them. There's a special breed who casts the sharpest stones, and inflicts the most damage.
As research suggests, the desire to see others suffer is an intrinsic personality trait. Efforts to quash this dark side of human nature are at best futile. At worst, they may actually fan the flames.
Just ask Kristi Gordon. As the senior meteorologist at Global B.C. News, Gordon has a thick skin when it comes to negative comments from viewers. Still, after receiving withering messages about her clothes and appearance during her first pregnancy, Gordon appealed to her audience to go easy on her when she announced earlier this year that she's expecting a second child. That plea went unheeded.
As the weeks passed, Gordon began receiving e-mails, calling her a "hussy" and chiding her to buy "some decent clothes and have more respect for the unborn child." She brushed aside these initial messages, but one particularly nasty handwritten letter she received last month ruffled her.
"Nowhere on North America TV [sic] have we seen a weather reader so gross as you. Your front end looks like the Hindenburg and rear end a brick [expletive] house," the letter read. It provided no return address and was signed ominously as "The Group."
Gordon initially laughed it off, but she later self-consciously examined her appearance. "I know this letter is totally ridiculous and shouldn't mean anything," she tells me. Even so, she says: "[I] double-checked to make sure. Well, maybe I am a bit gross, you know? Let's just have a look and check myself out in the mirror and ask my husband, 'Am I getting gross?'"
The sheer meanness of the letter and the lengths the writer took to hand-write it and post it got under her skin. "Why did they feel it necessary to go to this effort to write to me?"
Why indeed? Who are these (usually) anonymous individuals who intentionally, and cruelly, humiliate others?
The answer may lie in an experiment by University of Manitoba PhD psychology student Erin Buckels, involving a "bug-crunching machine" and live pill bugs, named Muffin, Ike and Tootsie.
Buckels studies what she calls "everyday sadists," people who enjoy inflicting pain on others but aren't criminal or clinically disordered.
They're just regular people who like to be cruel to others, she says, explaining that sadism isn't a category, but rather a spectrum. While we all possess varying degrees of malice, some people are clearly more sadistic than others.
In a study published in 2013 in the journal Psychological Science, Buckels and her colleagues found people who scored high on measures of sadism, agreeing with statements such as "I enjoy making jokes at the expense of others," were more willing to agree to killing bugs over other unenviable tasks, such as cleaning toilets. The scientists cranked up the cruelty of the bug-killing job by giving the insects cutesy names and asking participants to crush them in a rigged-up coffee grinder. (Unbeknownst to the test subjects, a barrier prevented the insects from any actual harm.) Sadistic participants didn't mind the grisly task; they even found it pleasurable.
In additional experiments, Buckels found that the more sadistic people are, the more likely they are to go out of their way to make other people suffer, and that online trolls and cyberbullies tend to have high sadism scores.
Still, it's not clear why everyday sadists enjoy inflicting pain.
"I don't know that they could answer that, to be honest. They just find it pleasurable," Buckels says, noting that when targets speak out about their suffering, it likely only adds to their tormentors' glee. "It increases the enjoyment when they see they've affected some kind of horrible outcome on someone. If they don't get to see it, it's less pleasurable."
Nicole Legate, an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology who studies social exclusion, has a different, though no less troubling, view. Legate suggests people who engage in online bullying, trolling and shaming do so because they lack a sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness in their lives. When these needs are thwarted, she explains, people often act in harmful or anti-social ways.
Through her research, Legate found that the act of ostracizing others actually makes ostracizers feel worse about themselves.
"It's a vicious cycle," she explains. "The more you're doing this stuff, the worse you feel and the more thwarted you get, and so it kind of feeds back to wanting to do it some more."
Legate says messages that command people to stop mean behaviour are not only ineffective, they could actually make people lash out even more. She notes that a University of Toronto Scarborough study, first published online in Psychological Science in 2011, showed campaigns with anti-prejudice messages – that invoked the idea that racism should be fought or stamped out – can actually increase prejudice.
"People tend to get pretty defensive when you tell them to not do something," Legate explains. A better tactic, she suggests, might be to try to give reasons for why it would be beneficial for them to change their ways, and ultimately leave the decision up to them.
If we can't force everyday sadists to change their behaviour online, it is nevertheless possible to reduce the sting of cybercensuring by defending those who are targeted.
Ronson points out that many have stood up for Trevor Noah, the incoming host of the late-night satirical Daily Show, since controversial jokes he made on Twitter several years ago resurfaced last week, prompting criticism that his humour is anti-Semitic and sexist. Both current Daily Show host Jon Stewart and Comedy Central, the channel that airs the show, have urged the public to give Noah a chance.
"To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair," a Comedy Central statement read, according to news reports.
If only empathetic bystanders had similarly stuck up for Sacco, Stone and the other subjects in Ronson's book. Their support might have cushioned the fallout and saved them from the mental and emotional trauma of being shunned.
"It's just another manifestation of things we've seen throughout history. People showed up for public executions and other public humiliations," Buckels says. "People enjoy seeing someone get taken down. I don't think you can stop it."