“Always different, always the same” is how author and journalist Jon Ronson sums up the way in which an individual’s privacy can be swept away by public infamy. The methods have changed but the result is similar. In the distant past, it was humiliation enshrined in law (the stocks and public torture of medieval Europe and Puritan America, for example). More recently it was exposure by journalists – sometimes public figures but often private individuals who happened to have embarrassing (but legal) sexual interests.
It is the very modern privacy invasion of being hounded on social media that Ronson explores in his best-selling book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”. He will be discussing issues of privacy in an online age as part of Last Thursday in Privacy with BBC correspondent Joe Tidy on 25 June (register here).
Ronson’s view as set out in the book is that social media has given a democratic veneer to the en masse humiliation of individuals. Rather than law enforcement or journalists exposing wrongdoing (however that is defined), platforms such as Facebook and Twitter give huge numbers of strangers the ability to target and attack people who are rarely public figures themselves.
He argues the sheer volume of attention that a seemingly innocuous or badly phrased comment online can produce is the opposite of democratic. He ends the book by saying: “The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”
Speaking to PrivSec in advance of LTIP, Ronson believes society’s attitudes to public shaming on social media has probably changed since the book was published in 2015. “I think there is more chance of a discourse, a debate, compared to when these were very new events.” One of the case studies in his book is about a woman who makes an offhand comment on Twitter about HIV and Africa which could be interpreted as racist but is more plausibly interpreted as sarcasm. Ronson points to the novelty, at the time, of the sheer volume of abuse she received from hundreds of thousands of Twitter users within a few hours.
He says his views of the Right to be Forgotten regulation (article 17 of the GDPR covers data implications) are different than they would have been 20 years ago. “My reaction then would have been that I was uncomfortable about how it could be used by powerful people. But I don’t buy the argument that sharing something with 170 followers on Twitter makes you a public figure with this huge megaphone. Or that if you do something wrong, you should in effect be tried over again and again.”
Jon Ronson will be interviewed by BBC cybersecurity correspondent Joe Tidy at 3pm BST on 25 June – Register for Last Thursday in Privacy at https://digital.privsec.info
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