Public shaming isn’t as bad as it seems

Megan McArdle recently wrote an article titled We Live in Fear of the Online Mobs, in which she argues:

James Damore, the author of the notorious Google memo, has had his 15 minutes of fame. In six months, few of us will be able to remember his name. But Google will remember — not the company, but the search engine. For the rest of his life, every time he meets someone new or applies for a job, the first thing they will learn about him, and probably the only thing, is that he wrote a document that caused an internet uproar.

The internet did not invent the public relations disaster, or the summary firing to make said disaster go away. What the internet changed is the scale of the disasters, and the number of people who are vulnerable to them, and the cold implacable permanence of the wreckage they leave behind….

[After] the memo became public, the internet erupted against the author, quite publicly executing his economic and social prospects. I doubt Damore will ever again be employable at anything resembling his old salary and status. (Unless maybe a supporter hires him to make a political statement.)

I think McCardle vastly overestimates how economically damaging online mobs are. I think that people are very afraid of online mobs—just like people are afraid of terrorists or shark attacks. But I also think that, as with terrorists or shark attacks, people are more afraid of mobs than the statistics justify. And, as with those other dangers, it’s important to remember how low the risk is, so that we don’t overreact and adopt cures that are worse than the disease. (Which is not to say that we shouldn’t look for cure that aren’t worse that the disease in any of those areas, to the extent that we can find them.)[FN: I hope it goes without saying that I am not drawing any sort of moral equivalence between terrorists, sharks, and/or online mobs.]

* * *

Lets start with the specific case McCardle highlighted. Is it true that Damore’s economic prospects were severely harmed by his encounter with an online mob?

Note: I am very specifically staying out of the merits of the Damore issue. I kind of wish McCardle had picked a different example, but she picked that one, so I’ll stick with it. I do have Thoughts about the whole Google memo situation, but it’s a big topic and not one I’m interested in getting into right now. Right now, I’m limiting my discussion to a narrow topic: given that Damore was fired and faced the controversy that he faced, will his economic prospects be significantly harmed?


It’s obviously too soon to be sure about the long-term outcome, but so far his supporters have already raised (as of this writing) $53,356 to make up for any immediate harm. He recieved multipe job offers within days of his firing. He has parlayed his 15 minutes of fame into a fair amount of media exposure and association with prominent political figures. In short, he seems to be doing just fine.

Now, maybe all this falls into the category that McArdle parenthetically dismisses by saying that he’ll never get as good a job “(unless maybe a supporter hires him to make a political statement.)” But so what if he gets hired to make a political point? The harm he’s experiencing is that he’s not getting hired by people who want to avoid making a political point. Politically motivated money spends just the same as any other money; the overall point is that economically speaking Damore doesn’t seem to have been harmed by the internet mob.

* * *

Well, ok, maybe McArdle was wrong about that Google guy, but surely she’s right that in general being targeted by a rabid online mob is very economically harmful? After all, most people who are targeted by online mobs don’t have supporters who raise tens of thousands of dollars on their behalf.

Again, I disagree.

I think people who are targeted by online mobs mostly fall into one of two logical categories. First, they might be like the Google guy, and do something that is very controversial. In that case, they will have supporters (or else there would be no controversy). And, in general, these supporters will help them out enough that the controversy won’t be (economically) crushing.

Damore obviously falls into this category. So do Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill—both of whom were vilified but both of whom seem to be doing fine these days. Sure, not everyone has fund raisers, but in general being on one side of a highly charged controversy is not a death sentence; you have lots of enemies, but you also have lots of friends.

The other alternative is that the target of the online mob does something that isn’t controversial—it’s just criticized. In that situation, the target doesn’t get any support at all.

Yet I still don’t think being the target of an online mob in that situation is all that economically damaging. If the event isn’t controversial, then there’s no ongoing debate to keep people interested, and the short attention span of Twitter all but guarantees that the target will be left alone soon—and will be able to recover in short order.

Here, my go-to example is Justine Sacco. Sacco is the lead example in Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson writes about how Sacco became the target of an online mob based on a joke she made on Twitter. She was promptly fired from her public relations job, and received basically no support at all. Even now, Googling her name brings up story after story about her twitter joke.

And yet those stories also reveal that she’s doing pretty well these days. Despite headlines like What Happened To Justine Sacco, The Woman Whose Life Was Ruined By An AIDS Joke She Made On Twitter?, it hardly seems like her life was “ruined” at all. Here’s how that article put it:

Her tweet had been taken out of her little bubble and robbed of its context, [but] was it really worth ruining her life over?

Fortunately, while it took a very long time, Sacco did eventually pick herself back up, but not before some setbacks. After spending some time working in Ethiopia, she took a job as the PR person for Hot or Not, and after doing so, [the person who started the online mob] struck again. “How perfect!” he wrote. “Two lousy has-beens, gunning for a comeback together.”

But the story has a happy — and just — ending. Not long after [that guy] mocked Sacco again, he got a taste of his own medicine when an ironic tweet of his own was taken out of context, and he (and his editors) ended up getting hundreds of emails demanding that he be fired. Ultimately, he would not only apologize to Sacco for ruining her life, but they actually ended up going out to dinner together and becoming good friends.

In fact, Biddle suggested in his apology that no one is more qualified as a PR person than Sacco. “She has the expertise of ten lifetimes when it comes to dealing with bad press. She survived a genuine personal crisis. She’s unkillable, and smart, and she will tell you to shut up, idiot, it can’t get any worse.”

Sacco eventually found a good job in a PR firm that she loves, although she wouldn’t identify where she works to the Times because, as she told Ronson, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”

Consistent with its headline, that story really plays up the “ruining her life” angle. But did it really? That article was written less than five years after the initial tweet, and Sacco had already had her new good job for quite some time. (She actually got a job after just a year). So, in just a few years, she’d recovered completely and, in the long run, seems to be in a similar economic position to where she was before the mob.

Now, the fact that Justine Sacco didn’t suffer long-run economic consequences from her mobbing run is not proof that others don’t. But it is pretty indicative. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed presumably chose her as its lead example for a reason—if there were others who suffered worse consequences, it stands to reason that they would have been the lead example. Plus, a bit of Googling hasn’t revealed any proof of people who were economically crushed by twitter mobs. (And that’s coming from an Internet that provides example after example of 20 lottery winners who lost every penny and the like!)

It’s always hard to prove a negative, but given the lack of evidence and the inherently public nature of public shaming, I’m convinced that the odds of it being significantly economically harmful are very low.

* * *

Does all this mean that I’m prepared to embrace public shaming as a harmless feature of modern life? Not at all.

As you may have noticed, I’ve qualified all of the above by limiting the discussion to economic harms. Public shaming can obviously be deeply unpleasant, even traumatic. What’s more, it frequently seems mean, guided by some of the worst human instincts.

Even worse, I suspect it is anti-correlated with the truth. In an ideal world, we’d debate ideas in a way that brings us closer to the truth—sure, people can make arguments for both good ideas and for bad ideas, but the good ideas have a natural advantage and will hopefully win over time.

At best, public shaming lacks this feature: whether a public shaming campaign is successful depends not on the truth of the issues under debate, but on the social capital, personal connections, and wealth of the people involved. A public shaming campaign against the Koch brothers or George Sorros will have almost no effect; a shaming campaign against someone like Sacco with a stable family and enough savings to travel to Ethiopia for a while will have a minor, temporary effect; and a public shaming campaign aginst poor teenager suffering from mental health issues could lead to depression or suicide. I have no interest in promoting a weapon that can be used so much more effectively against the powerless than against the powerful.

If I’m still against public shaming, why does it matter that the economic consequences aren’t as bad as McArdle and others seem to think? Simply because people are afraid. People really do “live in fear” as McArdle put it; they do think that an online mob can “ruin their life.” This is probably mistaken; an online mob can make life tough for a while, but any targets will likely either have some supporters or will be able to bounce back fairly quickly. Without minimizing the very real suffering online mobs can cause, I want to urge everyone to be just a bit less afraid.

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2 thoughts on “Public shaming isn’t as bad as it seems”

  1. So Justine Sacco is now back to where she was 5 years ago. And this is “no long-term economic consequences?”

    Don’t you think that if she had not had a year-long job search, she might have been able to save some more money, instead of having to spend it?

    How many people actually have enough savings to live for a year while job-searching?

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