Who is this beast that knows your name?

Who is this beast that knows your name?
The controversial measures would allow police to strictly monitor people believed to be falling prey to radical propaganda, even if they have not been arrested.

In this age of knee-jerk "likes", tweets, posts and pins, there is something about sharing one's views online that brings out the best, but often the worst, in people.

Ask yourself: What online comments or photographs you saw recently inspired you? And what comments or photos offended you?

Chances are, you will struggle to respond to the first but have many examples springing to mind of the second. In so saying, don't you wonder what it is about being able to post one's views, and read the thoughts of others, online that turns even the most mild-mannered people into raving, ranting and oft-raging personalities in cyberspace?

British journalist, broadcaster and documentary film-maker Jon Ronson, who surfs the Internet and tweets compulsively, has wondered a lot about that.

But he really got going on finding an answer to this Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon after three academics from Britain's Warwick University hijacked his identity, set up a Twitter account with it and used it to irk and shame Ronson by tweeting inanely about weird meals - guarana and mussel sandwich, anyone? - and discomfiting thoughts such as this tweet: "I'm dreaming something about #time and #cock."

Ronson confronted the trio in real life and, when they continued assuming his identity, harnessed netizens to flame them mercilessly. They stopped mocking him and Ronson realised that such online shaming was today's equivalent of the public hangings and beheadings of yore.

He then spent the next three years probing what it was about social media that turned people into trolls, who provoke fury by posting deeply offensive remarks or images about others.

The result is a fascinating journey into the ugliest nooks of human nature, a sort of tour through a chamber of horrors littered not with corpses, but the exit boxes of people sacked from their jobs. That is because the most common upshot of public shaming is that the individuals involved often lose their jobs because their bosses no longer want to be associated with their nefarious acts online.

Just ask Hank, an American IT developer Ronson interviewed for this book, who refused to give Ronson his real name. No matter, because the whole world can already see a photograph of Hank online, sitting beside his friend Alex at an IT conference.

That photo was snapped by another conference participant, Adria Richards, after Hank and Alex - who were sitting behind Richards - whispered between themselves a joke about big dongles. They were making fun of an ongoing presentation, in which a young girl interested in IT had taken part.

Richards, who had been physically abused as a child, stood up, took a picture of Hank and Alex and tweeted it with the words: "Not cool. Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and 'big dongles'. Right behind me."

The post went viral, netizens flamed Hank, and Hank was fired.

But soon after that, Richards was fired too after irate netizens from the image-based online bulletin board 4chan/b/ launched a massive attack on her employer's website.

They were retaliating against her for causing Hank to lose his job just for making a joke that hurt nobody. As one among them, Mercedes Haefer, told Ronson: "He wasn't hurting anyone. She was impeding his freedom of speech and the Internet spanked her for it."

As Ronson muses in the book, the jugular that netizens go for is not just reputation, but livelihood as well.

What is more, while the people they target are often vile in their comments about others, sticks and stones can break bones, but words cannot do so. So the justice meted out by netizens to trolls is like a sledgehammer to the transgression of a flea, or virtual nobody.

Ronson's big lesson from all this: The instant, rabid feedback that one gets online is causing so many people to think twice about whatever they post that, far from being democratic, the Internet is now cowered by the tyranny of the troll majority.

So it is, as an unnamed friend of Ronson notes, that public shaming stoked by social media is creating "a more conformist, conservative age".

Ronson practises gonzo journalism, which means he puts himself front and centre in all his stories. In less able hands, such an approach might be akin to following a hyper-enthusiastic cameraman whose lens keep bobbing about, resulting in disjunctive stories.

But Ronson is an old hand at storytelling, with a charming, measured voice to boot. So it is that he persuades former hotshot American reporter Jonah Lehrer to go on a hike with him, after which the latter came clean on how he blew his entire reputation on making up quotes about Bob Dylan.

Lehrer was exposed by his countryman, freelance reporter and Bob Dylan fan Michael Moynihan, who does the kind of bloodhound legwork that is the difference between serviceable and superb journalism.

Lehrer, a Rhodes Scholar, grew complacent, sloppy and deceitful and, when given a chance to apologise for his failings at a prestigious journalism meet, tried instead to justify himself. This led Twitter users to flame him in real time even as he was giving his unapologetic apology speech.

The flamers' comments included: "Rantings of a delusional, unrepentant narcissist." Lehrer could read every one of their abusive comments because there was a screen with a live Twitter feed to the right of him as he spoke.

As Lehrer told Ronson in the book: "Nothing can turn this around. I've got to be realistic about that. I shouldn't have accepted the invitation to speak, but now it's too late."

Here are three big things Ronson learnt about the shaming beast called social media:

Be aware of what each social media site stands for. For example, Haefer tells Ronson, Twitter is more moral and straightforward than, say, 4chan, whose purpose is to hunt down and stomp on those who hurt or victimise others; Understand that the Internet has evolved such that it is no longer a bastion of freedom of expression, but is more about how certain companies control its torrents of data to make as much money; and

Most trolls are not psychopaths, or mentally ill people who get a kick out of harming others, but they behave psychopathically because there is something about the anonymity of being in a mob online that sets off one's darker side.

Fans of his uproarious bestseller The Psychopath Test (2011) may find this book more of a canter than a gallop. But it is still one of the more accessible and intimate dissections of this new ecosystem of communication.

You will likely end up finishing its 15 chapters in one sitting.

suk@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
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