an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘Adria Richards

online shaming, some problems and perspectives

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Canto: So what exactly is online shaming, and do we need to worry about it?

Jacinta: It’s an extension of any kind of shaming, like in primary school when we picked on some misfit and ostracised her, because she was fat, or ugly, or ‘smelly’ or seemed somehow dysfunctional and a soft target. It was easy to do because we were in a group and our target was too weak to retaliate.

Canto: Did you really do that?

Jacinta: Mildly, peripherally, briefly, when I was very young. But the problem today with social media is this large-scale ganging up, because social media does tend to separate people into their own in-groups, which dehumanise those belonging to their out-groups. The example Jon Ronson gives in his book So you’ve been publicly shamed, and in various talks viewable online, is of a woman who makes a careless joke mocking views on AIDS and Africans is first taken to task by a ‘right-thinking’ in-group, and then character-assasinated in a sort of race to the top, or bottom, in terms of high dudgeon or indignation. All of this occurring on Twitter in a matter of hours, unbeknown to the target.

Canto: And you’ve given a fairly generic example there – a person tweets something careless, someone takes umbrage and retweets it, sometimes distorting it slightly, or adding some dark colour to it, and a kind of holier-than-thou hatred gets unleashed. But I must say, I’m not a Twitter user, so I’m very much out of this loop. What Ronson tells me is about the horrific power of Twitter, which makes me glad to be out of it. I like to think that I wouldn’t engage in that sort of thing myself, I’ve always been wary of crowds and of saying things to be popular, which is what this is partly about isn’t it?

Jacinta: Yes, part of it is about displaying your ‘virtue’ and allegiance to your in-group, but it often becomes very violent, and because of the online aspect, it can spread more rapidly and involve far more people than ye olde public square shaming. Reputations can be shredded and victims may find it difficult to recover.

Canto: But isn’t there good public shaming? I mean, I don’t know much about the Volkswagen scandal, how they duped the system and presented false data about diesel emissions, but you can imagine a scenario in which a car manufacturer tries to keep something dodgy about their data secret, and a disgruntled employee blows the whistle on Twitter, creating a firestorm of indignation and retribution.

Jacinta: That’s a good point but even that is very likely to get out of hand, with solid factual information mixing with bullshit and personal grievances. As a weapon, public shaming is always going to be a bit of a loose canon. Think of a company like Monsanto, which to a particular in-group is synonymous with Pure Evil, and just seems to bring out the worst of responses from the loopy left, no matter what it does.

Canto: So what’s the solution?

Jacinta: Not surprisingly, finding solutions is far easier than creating problems. But before I get into that – and you’ll probably guess what they are – thinking before you tweet, giving the benefit of the doubt, respecting diversity, watching out for mob behaviour… before I get into that, let’s look at the various forms or techniques of public shaming.

Canto: Well, there’s doxing – which comes from documents. Publishing or posting documentary info on someone, often private info, to harass, shame or expose something about them. This can be done for good or ill of course. There’s naming and shaming, which is often used against paedophiles or people released on parole or after serving a sentence, who are perceived as a danger to the public by some vigilante group or individual. There’s revenge porn – nude or ‘compromising’ photos often posted by jilted lovers, but also by computer hackers for various nefarious purposes. This, along with doxing and other forms of online targeting, can have permanent effects on the target’s career and reputation.

Jacinta: Yes, and there’s the ‘shaming’ of restaurants or products, often done in an organised way, and groups like ‘GetUp’ and ‘change.org’ who drive online petitions against companies or decisions they don’t like, and as you can see, this shaming can shade into ideological disputes such as environmentalism v big business, or even conspiracy theories. But I do notice that, in terms of individual shaming, women usually come out of it worse than men. The Justine Sacco shaming is an obvious example. The tweet she sent was extremely mild compared to those sent about her…

Canto: Apparently some black people found it offensive…

Jacinta: Well, come on, the ironic nature of the tweet has been explained countless times. It wasn’t hilariously funny, sure, but if you remain ‘offended’ then you’re one of those serially offended people who blight the lives of everyone who likes to engage in a bit, or a lot, of self-and-other-mockery.

Canto: But I’ve read that Sacco has recently been reinstated in the job she was sacked from as a result of the tweetstorm, and before that she was doing well in another job of a similar sort. So she hasn’t suffered much.

Jacinta: Clearly she’s very talented in her line of work, and good luck to her, but the level of abuse she suffered – often sexualised – tends to be reserved for women. And take the case of Adria Richards, also dealt with in Ronson’s book, which I haven’t read, but there’s an interesting online article about her. She was at a conference and heard two guys nearby having a private but loud conversation which included such sexual terms as ‘I’d fork his repo’ (I’ve no idea what that means) and ‘big dongle’ (not a term I would use – I prefer cock and prick). She found this offensive and tweeted as much, including a photo of the guys. One of the guys was sacked as a result, but when he himself tweeted about what he considered the underhand nature of what she did, the Twitter world turned on Richards big-time. She was sacked after a campaign by hackers launched a ‘distributed denial of service’ attack on her employer, and internet trolls gave her a horribly hard time with the usual disgusting invective that tends to get directed at women.

Canto: Well, I’ve read the article, and I agree that she was treated horribly, but I would say the over-reaction was on both sides. I must say that, to start with, if she was so offended by the lads’ remarks, why not turn round and ask them to shut up? And second, I don’t understand what’s so offensive about forking and repo and dongles, whatever they are. I presume they’re sexual terms but like you, I was brought up in a working-class environment where a cock was called a cock, a cunt a cunt and a fuck a fuck. Most euphemisms aren’t even comprehensible to me, let alone offensive.

Jacinta: Well I can only agree. I think it’s an American problem. But the first thing she should surely have done was ask them to desist if she was offended. It’s quite likely that they would have complied. There’s no mention of her ever doing that. And posting photos of someone online without their permission should be a big no-no. I already have friends who refuse that permission – they’ve become very wary of social media and I don’t blame them. So it was a ‘classic over-reaction’ as one commentator out it, but then to go after Richards in revenge was also wrong.

Canto: It’s a classic example of what’s being called the ‘weaponising’ of social media, people’s lives getting messed up because they can’t engage in straightforward communication, and need to parade their offendedness to the world. Let me tell you a story about trash-talking from my younger days. I was at a party with my girlfriend and we ended up staying the night, sleeping on the floor in a spare room, along with another girl, an old friend of my girlfriend, whom she hadn’t seen in ages. The two women ended up talking much of the night, or rather my girlfriend’s friend held forth in a long monologue about her high-octane sex life, describing a host of encounters in detail, comparing tackle and performances ad nauseum, all with a degree of contempt and mockery that made me wonder why she hadn’t switched to a more enjoyable hobby. However, it never once occurred to me to complain. I was no doubt fascinated at first, but the relentless inhumane carping soon turned me off. Now imagine if this hadn’t occurred way back in the eighties, imagine I was a different sort of person, and I’d recorded the whole thing on my smartphone and posted it online…

Jacinta: She would’ve suffered hell, which even she wouldn’t have deserved. Which brings us again to solutions. And really, at the moment it’s self-imposed solutions. I don’t know if there are any laws preventing us to post images of others without their permission, but they might have to be created. And of course it would be just about impossible to impose laws preventing people from making false or injurious statements about others online. Laws about hate speech are endlessly controversial, for obvious reasons. We’re only just waking up to the power of these social media sites to destroy reputations based on the tiniest of infractions, often misunderstood. The Adria Richards case perfectly illustrates this. Of course the owners and managers of these sites need to be part of the solution, but they’re loath to impose severe restrictions. I suspect it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

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Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2018 at 5:17 pm