by Jon Ronson
Copyright © 2015 by Jon Ronson
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Four: God That Was Awesome
During the months that followed, it became routine. Everyday people, some with young children, were getting annihilated for tweeting some badly worded joke to their hundred or so followers. I'd meet them in restaurants and airport cafes-spectral figures wandering the earth like the living dead in the business wear of their former lives. It was happening with such regularity that it didn't even seem coincidental that one of them, Justine Sacco, had been working in the same office building as Michael Moynihan until three weeks earlier when, passing through Heathrow Airport, she wrote a tweet that came out badly.
It was December 20, 2013. For the previous two days she'd been tweeting little acerbic jokes to her 170 followers about her holiday travels. She was like a social media Sally Bowles, decadent and flighty and unaware that serious politics were looming. There was her joke about the German man on the plane from New York: "Weird German Dude: You're in first class. It's 2014. Get some deodorant.-Inner monolog as I inhale BO. Thank god for pharmaceuticals." Then the layover at Heathrow: "Chili-cucumber sandwiches-bad teeth. Back in London!" Then the final leg: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
She chuckled to herself, pressed send, and wandered around the airport for half an hour, sporadically checking Twitter.
"I got nothing," she told me. "No replies."
I imagined her feeling a bit deflated about this-that sad feeling when nobody congratulates you for being funny, that black silence when the Internet doesn't talk back. She boarded the plane. It was an eleven-hour flight. She slept. When the plane landed, she turned on her phone. Straightaway there was a text from someone she hadn't spoken to since high school: ''I'm so sorry to see what's happening."
She looked at it, baffled.
"And then my phone started to explode," she said.
We were having this conversation three weeks later at-her choice of location-the Cookshop restaurant in New York City. It was the very same restaurant where Michael had recounted to me the tale of Jonah's destruction. It was becoming for me the Restaurant of Stories of Obliterated Lives. But it was only a half coincidence. It was close to the building where they both worked. Michael had been offered a job at The Daily Beast as a result of his great Jonah scoop, and Justine had an office upstairs, running the PR department for the magazine's publisher, lAC-which also owned Vimeo and OkCupid and Match.com. The reason why she wanted to meet me here, and why she was wearing her expensive-looking work clothes, was that at six p.m. she was due in there to clean out her desk.
As she sat on the runway at Cape Town Airport, a second text popped up: "You need to call me immediately." It was from her best friend, Hannah. "You're the number one worldwide trend on Twitter right now."
"In light of @JustineSacco disgusting racist tweet, I'm donating to @CARE today," and "How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!" and "No words for that horribly disgusting, racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco. I am beyond horrified," and ''I'm an lAC employee and I don't want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever," and "Everyone go report this cunt @Justine Sacco," and from lAC: "This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight," and "Fascinated by the @JustineSacco train wreck. It's global and she's apparently *still on the plane,*" and "All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco's face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail," and "Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning- on moment ever when her plane lands." A hashtag began trending worldwide: #hasjustinelandedyet. "Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can't look away. Can't leave" and "It is kinda wild to see someone self-destruct without them even being aware of it. #hasjustinelandedyet" and "#hasjustinelandedyet may be the best thing to happen to my Friday night." Somebody worked out which flight she was on, and they linked to a flight tracker website, so everyone could watch its progress in real time. "Looks like @JustineSacco lands in about 9mins, this should be interesting" and "We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she's getting fired" and "Right. Is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I'd like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet" and then, after she frantically deleted the tweet, "Sorry @lustineSacco-your tweet lives on forever" and so on for a total of a hundred thousand tweets, according to calculations by the website BuzzFeed, until weeks later: "Man, remember Justine Sacco? #HasJustineLandedYet. God that was awesome. MILLIONS of people waiting for her to land."
I once asked a car-crash victim what it had felt like to be in a smashup. She said her eeriest memory was how one second the car was her friend, working for her, its contours designed to fit her body perfectly, everything smooth and sleek and luxurious, and then a blink of an eye later it had become a jagged weapon of torture-like she was inside an iron maiden. Her friend had become her worst enemy.
Over the years, I've sat across tables from a lot of people whose lives had been destroyed. Usually, the people who did the destroying were the government or the military or big business or, as with Jonah Lehrer, basically themselves (at least at first with Jonah-we took over as he tried to apologize). Justine Sacco felt like the first person I had ever interviewed who had been destroyed by us.
Google has an engine-Google AdWords-that tells you how many times your name has been searched for during any given month. In October 2013, Justine was googled thirty times. In November 2013, she was googled thirty times. Between December 20 and the end of December, she was googled 1,220,000 times.
A man had been waiting for her at Cape Town Airport. He was a Twitter user, @Zac_R. He took her photograph and posted it online. "Yup," he wrote, "@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town international. She's decided to wear sunnies as a disguise."
Justine Sacco (in dark glasses) at Cape Town Airport. Photograph by @Zac_R, reproduced with his permission.
Three weeks had passed since Justine had pressed send on the tweet. The New York Post had been following her to the gym. Newspapers were ransacking her Twitter feed for more horrors.
And the award for classiest tweet of all time goes to ..."I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night." (February 24, 2012)
-- "16 TWEETS JUSTINE SACCO REGRETS," BuzzFEED, DECEMBER 20, 2013
This was the only time Justine would ever talk to a journalist about what happened to her, she told me. It was just too harrowing. And inadvisable. ''As a publicist," she e-mailed, "I don't know that I would ever recommend to a client that they participate in your book. I'm very nervous about it. I am really terrified about opening myself up to future attacks. But I think it's necessary. I want someone to just show how crazy my situation is."
It was crazy because "only an insane person would think that white people don't get AIDS." That was about the first thing she said to me when she sat down. "To me, it was so insane a comment for an American to make I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was a literal statement. I know there are hateful people out there who don't like other people and are generally mean. But that's not me."
Justine had been about three hours into her flight -- probably asleep in the air above Spain or Algeria-when retweets of her tweet began to overwhelm my Twitter feed. After an initial happy little "Oh, wow, someone is fucked," I started to think her shamers must have been gripped by some kind of group madness or something. 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. Wasn't it?
"It was a joke about a situation that exists," Justine e-mailed. "It was a joke about a dire situation that does exist in post-apartheid South Africa that we don't pay attention to. It was completely outrageous commentary on the disproportionate AIDS statistics. Unfortunately, I am not a character on South Park or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform. To put it simply, I wasn't trying to raise awareness of AIDS, or piss off the world, or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble."
As it happens, I once made a similar-albeit funnier-joke in a column for The Guardian. It was about a time when I flew into the United States and was sent for "secondary processing" (there was a mafioso hit man on the run at the time with a name that apparently sounded quite a lot like Jon Ronson). I was taken into a packed holding room and told to wait.
There are signs everywhere saying: "The use of cell phones is strictly prohibited."
I'm sure they won't mind me checking my text messages, I think. I mean, after all, I am white.
My joke was funnier than Justine's joke. It was better worded. Plus, as it didn't invoke AIDS sufferers, it was less unpleasant. So mine was funnier, better worded, and less unpleasant. But it suddenly felt like that Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter when Christopher Walken puts the gun to his head and lets out a scream and pulls the trigger and the gun doesn't go off. It was to a large extent Justine's own fault that so many people thought she was a racist. Her reflexive sarcasm had been badly worded, her wider Twitter persona quite brittle. But I hadn't needed to think about her tweet for more than a few seconds before I understood what she'd been trying to say. There must have been among her shamers a lot of people who chose to willfully misunderstand it for some reason.
"I can't fully grasp the misconception that's happening around the world," Justine said. "They've taken my name and my picture, and have created this Justine Sacco that's not me and have labeled this person a racist. I have this fear that if I were in a car accident tomorrow and lost my memory and came back and googled myself, that would be my new reality."
I suddenly remembered how weirdly tarnished I felt when the spambot men created their fake Jon Ronson, getting my character traits all wrong, turning me into some horrific, garrulous foodie, and strangers believed it was me, and there was nothing I could do. That's what was happening to Justine, although instead of a foodie she was a racist and instead of fifty people it was 1,220,000.
Journalists are supposed to be intrepid. We're supposed to stand tall in the face of injustice and not fear crazy mobs. But neither Justine nor I saw much fearlessness in how her story was reported. Even articles about how "we could all be minutes away from having a Justine Sacco moment" were all couched in "I am NO WAY defending what she said," she told me.
But as vile as the sentiment she expressed was, there are some potential extenuating circumstances here that don't excuse her behavior but might mitigate her misdeed somewhat. Repugnant as her joke was, there is a difference between outright hate speech and even the most ill-advised attempt at humor.
-- ANDREW WALLENSTEIN, "JUSTINE SACCO: SYMPATHY FOR THIS TWITTER DEVIL," Variety, DECEMBER 22, 2013
Andrew Wallenstein was braver than most. But still: It read like the old media saying to social media, "Don't hurt me."
Justine released an apology statement. She cut short her South African family vacation "because of safety concerns. People were threatening to go on strike at the hotels I was booked into if I showed up. I was told no one could guarantee my safety." Word spread around the Internet that she was heiress to a $4.8 billion fortune, as people assumed her father was the South African mining tycoon Desmond Sacco. I wrongly thought this was true about her right up until I alluded to her billions over lunch and she looked at me like I was crazy.
"I grew up on Long Island," she said.
"Not in a Jay Gatsby-type estate?" I said.
"Not in a Jay Gatsby-type estate," Justine said. "My mom was single my entire life. She was a flight attendant. My dad sold carpets."
(She later e-mailed that while she "grew up with a single mom who was a flight attendant and worked two jobs, when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, she married well. My stepfather is pretty well off, and I think there was a picture of my mom's car on my Instagram, which gave the impression that I'm from a wealthy family. So maybe that's another reason why people assumed I was a spoiled brat. I don't know. But thought it was worth bringing up to you.")
Years ago I interviewed some white supremacists from an Aryan Nations compound in Idaho about their conviction that the Bilderberg Group-a secretive annual meeting of politicians and business leaders-was a Jewish conspiracy.
"How can you call it a Jewish conspiracy when practically no Jews go to it?" I asked them.
"They may not be actual Jews," one replied, "but they are .. ." He paused. "... Jewish."
So there it was: At Aryan Nations, you didn't need to be an actual Jew to be Jew-ish. And the same was true on Twitter with the privileged racist Justine Sacco, who was neither especially privileged nor a racist. But it didn't matter. It was enough that it sort of seemed like she was.
Her extended family in South Africa were ANC supporters. One of the first things Justine's aunt told her when she arrived at the family home from Cape Town Airport was: "This is not what our family stands for. And now, by association, you've almost tarnished the family."
At this, Justine started to cry. I sat looking at her for a moment. Then I tried to say something hopeful to improve the mood.
"Sometimes things need to reach a brutal nadir before people see sense," I said. "So maybe you're our brutal nadir."
"Wow," Justine said. She dried her eyes. "Of all the things I could have been in society's collective consciousness, it never struck me that I'd end up a brutal nadir."
A woman approached our table-a friend of Justine's. She sat down next to her, fixed her with an empathetic look, and said something at such a low volume I couldn't hear it.
"Oh, you think I'm going to be grateful for this?" Justine replied.
"Yes, you will," the woman said. "Every step prepares you for the next, especially when you don't think so. I know you can't see that right now. That's okay. I get it. But come on. Did you really have your dream job?"
Justine looked at her. "I think I did," she said.
I got an e-mail from the Gawker journalist Sam Biddle-the man who may have started the onslaught against Justine. One of Justine's 170 followers had sent him the tweet. He retweeted it to his 15,000 followers. And that's how it may have begun.
"The fact that she was a PR chief made it delicious," he e-mailed me. "It's satisfying to be able to say 'OK, let's make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.' And it did. I'd do it again."
Her destruction was justified, Sam Biddle was saying, because Justine was a racist, and because attacking her was punching up. They were cutting down a member of the media elite, continuing the civil rights tradition that started with Rosa Parks, the hitherto silenced underdogs shaming into submission the powerful racist. But I didn't think any of those things were true. If punching Justine Sacco was ever punching up-and it didn't seem so to me given that she was an unknown PR woman with 170 Twitter followers-the punching only intensified as she plummeted to the ground. Punching Jonah Lehrer wasn't punching up either-not when he was begging for forgiveness in front of that giant-screen Twitter feed.
A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we've created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It's all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
I could tell Sam Biddle was finding it startling too-like when you shoot a gun and the power of it sends you recoiling violently backward. He said he was "surprised" to see how quickly Justine was destroyed: "I never wake up and hope I get to fire someone that day-and certainly never hope to ruin anyone's life." Still, his e-mail ended, he had a feeling she'd be "fine eventually, if not already. Everyone's attention span is so short. They'll be mad about something new today."
When Justine left me that evening to clear out her desk, she got only as far as the lobby of her office building before she collapsed on the floor in tears. Later, we talked again. I told her what Sam Biddle had said-about how she was "probably fine now." I was sure he wasn't being deliberately glib. He was just like everyone who participates in mass online destruction. Who would want to know? Whatever that pleasurable rush that overwhelms us is-group madness or something else-nobody wants to ruin it by facing the fact that it comes with a cost.
"Well, I'm not fine," Justine said. ''I'm really suffering. I had a great career and I loved my job and it was taken away from me and there was a lot of glory in that. Everybody else was very happy about that. I cried out my body weight in the first twenty-four hours. It was incredibly traumatic. You don't sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are. All of a sudden you don't know what you're supposed to do. You've got no schedule. You've got no"-she paused-"purpose. I'm thirty years old. I had a great career. If I don't have a plan, if I don't start making steps to reclaim my identity and remind myself of who I am on a daily basis, then I might lose myself. I'm single. So it's not like I can date, because we google everyone we might date. So that's been taken . away from me too. How am I going to meet new people? What are they going to think of me?"
She asked me who else was going to be in my book about people who had been publicly shamed.
"Well, Jonah Lehrer so far," I said.
"How's he doing?" she asked me.
"Pretty badly, I think," I said.
"Badly in what way?" She looked concerned-I think more for what this might prophesy about her own future than about Jonah's.
"I think he's broken," I said.
"When you say Jonah seems broken, what do you mean?" Justine said.
"I think he's broken and that people mistake it for shamelessness," I said.
People really were very keen to imagine Jonah as shameless, as lacking in that quality, like he was something not quite human that had adopted human form. I suppose it's no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt-before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise. In psychology it's known as cognitive dissonance. It's the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we're kind people and the idea that we've just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior. It's like when I used to smoke and I'd hope the tobacconist would hand me the pack that read SMOKING CAUSES AGING OF THE SKIN instead of the pack that read SMOKING KILLS -- because aging of the skin? I didn't mind that.
Justine and I agreed to meet again, but not for months, she told me. We'd meet again in five months. She was compelled to make sure that this was not her narrative. "I can't just sit at home and watch movies every day and cry and feel sorry for myself," she said. I think Justine wasn't thrilled to be included in the same book as Jonah. She didn't see herself as being anything like Jonah. Jonah lied repeatedly, again and again. How could Jonah bounce back when he'd sacrificed his character and lied to millions? Justine had to believe that there was a stark difference between that and her making a tasteless joke. She did something stupid, but she didn't trash her integrity.
She couldn't bear the thought of being preserved within the pages of my book as a sad case. She needed to avoid falling into depression and self-loathing. She knew that the next five months were going to be crucial for her. She was determined to show the people who had smashed her up that she could rise again.
How could she tell her story, she thought, when it was just beginning?
The day after my lunch with Justine, I caught the train to Washington, D.C., to meet someone I had prejudged as a frightening man-a fearsome American narcissist-Ted Poe. For the twenty or so years he was a judge in Houston, Poe's nationally famous trademark was to publicly shame defendants in the showiest ways he could dream up, "using citizens as virtual props in his personal theater of the absurd," as the legal writer Jonathan Turley once put it.
Given society's intensifying eagerness to publicly shame people, I wanted to meet someone who had been doing it professionally for decades. What would today's citizen shamers think of Ted Poe-his personality and his motivations-now that they were basically becoming him? What impact had his shaming frenzy had on the world around him-on the wrongdoers and the bystanders and himself?
Ted Poe's punishments were sometimes zany-ordering petty criminals to shovel manure, etc.-and sometimes as ingenious as a Goya painting. Like the one he handed down to a Houston teenager, Mike Hubacek. In 1996, Hubacek had been driving drunk at one hundred miles per hour with no headlights. He crashed into a van carrying a married couple and their nanny. The husband and the nanny were killed. Poe sentenced Hubacek to 110 days of boot camp, and to carry a sign once a month for ten years in front of high schools and bars that read I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK, and to erect a cross and a Star of David at the scene of the crash site, and to keep it maintained, and to keep photographs of the victims in his wallet for ten years, and to send ten dollars every week for ten years to a memorial fund in the names of the victims, and to observe the autopsy of a person killed in a drunk-driving accident.
Punishments like these had proved too psychologically torturous for other people. In 1982 a seventeen-year-old boy named Kevin Tunell had killed a girl, Susan Herzog, while driving drunk near Washington, D.C. Her parents sued him and were awarded $1.5 million in damages. But they offered the boy a deal. They would reduce the fine to just $936 if he'd mail them a check for $1, made out in Susan's name, every Friday for eighteen years. He gratefully accepted their offer.
Years later, the boy began missing payments, and when Susan's parents took him to court, he broke down. Every time he filled in her name, he said, the guilt would tear him apart: "It hurts too much," he said. He tried to give the Herzogs two boxes of prewritten checks, dated one per week until the end of 2001, a year longer than was required. But they refused to take them.
Judge Ted Poe's critics-like the civil rights group the ACLU-argued to him the dangers of these ostentatious punishments, especially those that were carried out in public. They said it was no coincidence that public shaming had enjoyed such a renaissance in Mao's China and Hitler's Germany and the Ku Klux Klan's America-it destroys souls, brutalizing everyone, the onlookers included, dehumanizing them as much as the person being shamed. How could Poe take people with such low self-esteem that they needed to, say, rob a store, and then hold them up to officially sanctioned public ridicule?
But Poe brushed the criticisms off. Criminals didn't have low self-esteem, he argued. It was quite the opposite. "The people I see have too good a self-esteem," he told The Boston Globe in 1997. "Some folks say everyone should have high self-esteem, but sometimes people should feel bad."
Poe's shaming methods were so admired in Houston society that he ended up getting elected to Congress as the representative for Texas's Second Congressional District. He is currently Congress's "top talker," according to the Los Angeles Times, having made 431 speeches between 2009 and 2011, against abortion, illegal immigrants, socialized health care, and so on. He always ends them with his catchphrase: "And that's just the way it is!"
"It wasn't the 'theater of the absurd.''' Ted Poe sat opposite me in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. I'd just quoted to him his critic Jonathan Turley's line-"using citizens as virtual props in his personal theater of the absurd"-and he was bristling. He wore cowboy boots with his suit-another Poe trademark, like the catchphrase and the shaming. He had the look and mannerisms of his friend George W. Bush. "It was the theater of the different," he said.
The Rayburn building is where all the congressmen and congresswomen have their offices. Each office door is decorated with the state flag of the congress person who is inside: the bald eagles of Illinois and North Dakota and the bear of California and the horse's head of New Jersey and the strange bleeding pelican of Louisiana. Poe's office is staffed by handsome, serious-looking Texas men and tough, pretty Texas women who were extremely nice to me but totally ignored all my subsequent e-mail requests for clarifications and follow-up interviews. Although Poe ended the interview by warmly shaking my hand, I suspect that the moment I left the room he told his staff, "That man was an idiot. Ignore all future e-mail requests from him."
He recounted to me some of his favorite shamings: "Like the young man who loved the thrill of stealing. I could have put him in jail. But I decided that he had to carry a sign for seven days: I STOLE FROM THIS STORE. DON'T BE A THIEF OR THIS COULD BE YOU. He was supervised. We worked all the security out. I got that down to an art for those people who worried about security. At the end of the week the store manager called me: 'All week I didn't have any stealing going on in the store!' The store manager loved it."
"But aren't you turning the criminal justice system into entertainment?" I said.
"Ask the guy out there," Ted Poe replied. "He doesn't think he's entertaining anybody."
"I don't mean him," I said. "I mean the effect it has on the people watching."
"The public liked it." Poe nodded. "People stopped and talked to him about his conduct. One lady wanted to take him to church on Sunday and save him! She did!" Poe let out a big high-pitched Texas laugh. "She said, 'Come with me, you poor thing!' End of the week, I brought him back into court. He said it was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to him. It changed his conduct. Eventually, he got a bachelor's degree. He's got a business in Houston now." Poe paused. "I have put my share of folks in the penitentiary. Sixty-six percent of them go back to prison. Eighty-five percent of those people we publicly shamed we never saw again. It was too embarrassing for them the first time. It wasn't the 'theater of the absurd,' it was the theater of the effective. It worked."
Poe was being annoyingly convincing, even though he later admitted to me that his recidivism argument was a misleading one. Poe was far more likely to sentence a first-time offender-someone who was already feeling scared and remorseful and determined to change-to a shaming. But even so, I was learning something about public shaming today that I hadn't anticipated at all.
It had started earlier that morning in my hotel room when I telephoned Mike Hubacek, the teenager who had killed two people while driving drunk in 1996. I had wanted him to describe the feeling of being forced to walk up and down the side of the road holding a placard that read I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK. But first we talked about the crash. He told me he spent the first six months after it happened lying in his prison cell, replaying it over and over.
"What images did you replay?" I asked him.
"None," he replied. "I had completely blacked out during it and I don't remember anything. But I thought about it daily. I still do. It's a part of me. I suffered a lot of survivor's guilt. At the time, I almost convinced myself I was in a living purgatory. I lived to suffer. I went more than a year and a half without looking in a mirror. You learn to shave using your hand as a guide."
Being in purgatory, he said, he had resigned himself to a lifetime of incarceration. But then Ted Poe unexpectedly pulled him out. And he suddenly found himself walking up and down the side of the road holding that placard.
And there on the side of the road, he said, he understood that there was a use for him. He could basically become a living placard that warned people against driving drunk. And so nowadays he lectures in schools about the dangers. He owns a halfway house-Sober Living Houston. And he credits Judge Ted Poe for it all.
"I'm forever grateful to him," he said.
My trip to Washington, D.C., wasn't turning out how I'd hoped. I'd assumed that Ted Poe would be such a terrible person and negative role model that the social media shamers would realize with horror that this was what they were becoming and vow to change their ways. But Mike Hubacek thought his shaming was the best thing that had ever happened to him. This was especially true, he told me, because the onlookers had been so nice. He'd feared abuse and ridicule. But no. "Ninety percent of the responses on the street were 'God bless you' and 'Things will be okay,''' he said. Their kindness meant everything, he said. It made it all right. It set him on his path to salvation.
"Social media shamings are worse than your shamings," I suddenly said to Ted Poe.
He looked taken aback. "They are worse," he replied. "They're anonymous."
"Or even if they're not anonymous, it's such a pile-on they may as well be," I said.
"They're brutal," he said.
I suddenly became aware that throughout our conversation I'd been using the word they. And each time I did, it felt like I was being spineless. The fact was, they weren't brutal. We were brutal.
In the early days of Twitter there were no shamings. We were Eve in the Garden of Eden. We chatted away unselfconsciously. As somebody back then wrote, "Facebook is where you lie to your friends, Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers." Having funny and honest conversations with like-minded people I didn't know got me through hard times that were unfolding in my actual house. Then came the Tan Moir and the LA Fitness shamings 00 shamings to be proud of-and I remember how exciting it felt when hitherto remote evil billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump created their own Twitter accounts. For the first time in history we sort of had direct access to ivory-tower oligarchs like them. We became keenly watchful for transgressions.
After a while, it wasn't just transgressions we were keenly watchful for. It was misspeakings. Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact, it felt weird and empty when there wasn't anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking at fingernails, treading water.
I'd been dismayed by the cruelty of the people who tore Jonah apart as he tried to apologize. But they weren't the mob. We were the mob. I'd been blithely doing the same thing for a year or more. I had drifted into a new way of being. Who were the victims of my shamings? I could barely remember. I had only the vaguest recollection of the people I'd piled onto and what terrible things they'd done to deserve it.
This is partly because my memory has degenerated badly these past years. In fact, I was recently at a spa-my wife booked it for me as a special surprise, which shows she really doesn't know me because I don't like being touched-and as I lay on the massage table, the conversation turned to my bad memory.
"I can hardly remember anything about my childhood!" I told the masseur. "It's all gone!"
"A lot of people who can't remember their childhoods," she replied, as she massaged my shoulders, "it turns out that they were sexually abused. By their parents."
"Well, I'd remember THAT," I said.
But it wasn't just the fault of my lousy memory. It was the sheer volume of transgressors I'd chastised. How could I commit to memory that many people? Well, there were the spambot men. For a second in Poe's office I reminisced fondly on the moment someone suggested we gas the cunts. That had given me such a good feeling that it felt a shame to interrogate it-to question why it had beguiled me so.
"The justice system in the West has a lot of problems," Poe said, "but at least there are rules. You have basic rights as the accused. You have your day in court. You don't have any rights when you're accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It's worldwide forever."
It felt good to see the balance of power shift so that someone like Ted Poe was afraid of people like us. But he wouldn't sentence people to hold a placard for something they hadn't been convicted of. He wouldn't sentence someone for telling a joke that came out badly. The people we were destroying were no longer just people like Jonah: public figures who had committed actual transgressions. They were private individuals who really hadn't done anything much wrong. Ordinary humans were being forced to learn damage control, like corporations that had committed PR disasters. It was very stressful.
"We are more frightening than you," I said to Poe, feeling quite awed.
Poe sat back in his chair, satisfied. "You are much more frightening," he said. "You are much more frightening."
We were much more frightening than Judge Ted Poe. The powerful, crazy, cruel people I usually write about tend to be in far-off places. The powerful, crazy, cruel people were now us.
It felt like we were soldiers making war on other people's flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.
Eleven: The Man Who Can Change the Google Search Results
In October 2012 a group of adults with learning difficulties took an organized trip to Washington, D.C. They visited the National Mall, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery, and the U.S. Mint. They saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At night they sang karaoke in the hotel bar. Their caregivers, Lindsey Stone and her friend Jamie, did a duet of "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
"They had the greatest time on that trip," Lindsey Stone told me. "We were laughing on the bus. We were laughing walking around at night. They thought that we were fun and cool."
Lindsey was telling me the story eighteen months later. We were sitting at her kitchen table. She lives down a long lane near a pretty lake in a seaside town on the East Coast of the United States. "I like to dance and I like to do karaoke," Lindsey said. "But for a long time after that trip I didn't leave the house. During the day, I'd just sit here. I didn't want to be seen by anybody. I didn't want people looking at me."
"How long did that last?" I asked her.
"Almost a year," she said.
Lindsey didn't want to talk to me about what had happened on that trip to Washington, D.C. I had written to her three times and she had ignored each of my letters. But a very peculiar circumstance had made it necessary for her to change her mind.
Lindsey and Jamie had been with LIFE-Living Independently Forever-for a year and a half before that trip. LIFE was a residence for "pretty high-functioning people with learning difficulties," Lindsey said. "Jamie had started a jewelry club, which was a hit with the girls. We'd take them to the movies. We'd take them bowling. We got the company to purchase a karaoke sound system. We heard a lot from parents that we were the best thing that ever happened to that campus."
Off duty, she and Jamie had a running joke-taking stupid photographs, "smoking in front of a NO SMOKING sign, or posing in front of statues, mimicking the pose. We took dumb pictures all the time. And so at Arlington we saw the SILENCE AND RESPECT sign. And inspiration struck."
"So," Lindsey said, "thinking we were funny, Jamie posted it on Facebook and tagged me on it with my consent because I thought it was hilarious."
Nothing much happened after that. A few Facebook friends posted unenthusiastic comments. "One of them had served in the military and he wrote a message saying, 'This is kind of offensive. I know you girls, but it's just tasteless.' Another said 'I agree' and another said 'I agree' and then I said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa! It's just us being douchebags! Forget about it!'"
Whoa whoa whoa . . . wait. This is just us, being the douchebags that we are, challenging authority in general. Much like the pic posted the night before, of me smoking right next to a no smoking sign. OBVIOUSLY we meant NO disrespect to people that serve or have served our country.
-- LINDSEY STONE'S FACEBOOK MESSAGE, OCTOBER 20, 2012
After that, Jamie said to Lindsey, "Do you think we should take it down?"
"No!" Lindsey replied. "What's the big deal? No one's ever going to think of it again."
Their Facebook settings were a mystery to them. Most of the privacy boxes were ticked. Some weren't. Sometimes they'd half notice that boxes they'd thought they'd ticked weren't ticked. Lindsey has been thinking about that "a lot" these past eighteen months. "Facebook works best when everyone is sharing and liking. It brings their ad revenues up." Was there some Facebook shenanigan where things just "happen" to untick themselves? Some loophole? "But I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist. I don't know if Jamie's mobile uploads had ever been private."
Whatever: Jamie's mobile uploads weren't private. And four weeks after returning from Washington, D.C., they were in a restaurant celebrating their birthday-"We're a week apart" -when they became aware that their phones were vibrating repeatedly. So they went online.
"Lindsey Stone hates the military and hates soldiers who have died in foreign wars," and "Die cunt," and "You should rot in hell," and "Just pure Evil," and "The Face of a Typical Feminist. Fifty pounds overweight? Check. Sausage arms and little piglet fingers? Check. No respect for the men who sacrificed? Check," and "Fuck You whore. I hope I die [sic] a slow painful death. U retarted cunt," and "HOPE THIS CUNT GETS RAPED AND STABBED TO DEATH," and "Spoke with an employee from LIFE who has told me there are Veterans on the board and that she will be fired. Awaiting info on her accomplice," and "After they fire her, maybe she needs to sign up as a client. Woman needs help," and "Send the dumb feminist to prison," and, in response to a small number of posters suggesting that maybe a person's future shouldn't be ruined because of a jokey photograph, "HER FUTURE ISN'T RUINED! Stop trying to make her into a martyr. In 6 months no one except those that actually know her will remember this."
"I wanted to scream, 'It was just about a sign,'" Lindsey said.
Lindsey doesn't know how it spread. "I don't think I'll ever know," she said. "We have a feeling that somebody at work found it. We had kind of revitalized that campus. There was animosity that came from that. They saw us as young, irreverent idiots."
By the time she went to bed that night-"which was admittedly at four a.m." -a Fire Lindsey Stone Facebook page had been created. It attracted 12,000 likes. Lindsey read every comment. "I became really obsessed with reading everything about myself."
The next day camera crews had gathered outside her front door. Her father tried talking to them. He had a cigarette in his hand. The family dog had followed him out. As he tried to explain that Lindsey wasn't a terrible person, he noticed the cameras move from his face down to the cigarette and the dog, like they were a family of hillbillies-smoking separatists down a lane with guard dogs.
LIFE was inundated with e-mails demanding their jobs, so Lindsey was called into work. But she wasn't allowed inside the building. Her boss met her in the parking lot and told her to hand over her keys.
"Literally, overnight everything I knew and loved was gone," Lindsey said.
And that's when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.
COMPANY PRAISED FOR FIRING WOMAN WHO TOOK DISRESPECTFUL PHOTO NEXT TO SOLDIER'S GRAVE
A company is being applauded for firing a woman who made a vulgar gesture next to a soldier's burial site, sparking nationwide outrage ... Vitriol toward Lindsey Stone hasn't relented since she lost her job ... Commentators suggested "she should be shot" or exiled from the United States ...
Stone, who issued a statement of apology, has refused to show her face since the backlash, her parents told CBS Boston.
-- RHEANA MURRAY, NEW YORK Daily News. NOVEMBER 22, 2012, AS SEEN ON PAGE ONE OF THE GOOGLE.COM RESULTS FOR THE SEARCH TERM "LINDSEY STONE"
During the year that followed the Washington, D.C., trip, Lindsey scanned Craigslist for caregiving work, but nobody ever replied to her applications. She lurked online, watching all the other Lindsey Stones get destroyed. "I felt so terrible for Justine Sacco," she said, "and that girl at Halloween who dressed like the Boston Marathon victim."
And then her life suddenly got much better. She was offered a job caring for children with autism.
"But I'm terrified," she said.
"That your bosses will find out?"
Psychologists try to remind anxiety sufferers that "what if" worries are irrational ones. If you find yourself thinking, What if I just came across as racist? the "what if" is evidence that nothing bad actually happened. It's just thoughts swirling frantically around. But Lindsey's "what if" worry-"What if my new company googles me?"-was extremely plausible. In the tempest of her anxiety attacks there was no driftwood to hold on to. Her worst-case scenario was a likely one. And the photograph was everywhere. It had become so iconic and ubiquitous among swaths of U.S. veterans and right-wingers and antifeminists that one man had even turned it into patriotic wallpaper, superimposing onto the wall behind Lindsey's shrieking face and upturned finger a picture of a military funeral, complete with a coffin draped in the American flag.
Lindsey had wanted the job so much she'd been "nervous about even applying. And I wasn't sure how to address it on my resume. Why the abrupt departure from LIFE? I was conflicted on whether to say to them, 'Just so you know, I am this Lindsey Stone.' Because I knew it was just a mouse click away."
Before the job interview, the question had haunted her. Should she tell them? She was "insanely nervous" about making the wrong decision. She left it until the moment of the interview. And then the interview was over and she found that she hadn't mentioned it.
"It just didn't feel right," she said. "People who have gotten to know me don't see Arlington as a big deal. And so I wanted to give them the opportunity to know me before I say to them, 'This is what you'll get if you google me.'''
She's been in the job four months, and she still hasn't told them.
"And obviously you can't ask them, 'Have you noticed it and decided it's not a problem?'" I said.
"Right," said Lindsey.
"So you feel trapped in a paranoid silence," I said.
"I love this job so much," Lindsey said. "I love these kids. One of the parents paid me a really high compliment the other day. I've only been working with her son for a month and she was like, 'The moment I met you, seeing the way you are with my son, and the way you treat people, you were meant to work in this field.' But I see everything with a heavy heart because I wait for the other shoe to drop. What if she found out? Would she feel the same way?" Lindsey could never just be happy and relaxed. The terror was always there. "It really impacts the way you view the world. Since it happened, I haven't tried to date anybody. How much do you let a new person into your life? Do they already know? The place I'm working at now-I was under the impression nobody knew. But someone made a comment the other day and I think they knew."
"What was the comment?"
"Oh, we were talking about something and he tossed off a comment like 'Oh, it's not like I'm going to plaster that all over the Internet.' Then he quickly said, 'Just kidding. I would never do that to somebody. I would never do that to you.'''
"So you don't know for sure that he knew."
"Exactly," Lindsey said. "But his hurried follow-up ... I don't know." She paused. "That fear. It impacts you."
But now, suddenly, something had happened that could make all Lindsey's problems vanish. It was something almost magical, and it was my doing. I had set in motion a mysterious and fairy tale-like set of events for her. I'd never in my life been in a situation like this. It was new for both of us. It felt good-but there was a chance it wasn't good.