Online Shaming and the Democratisation of Justice

I recently finished reading the latest book from journalist, Jon Ronson, titled, ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, and much of it made me think of your exam on ‘Media in the Online Age’.  

jonronson-soyouvebeenpubliclyshamedAs you can guess from the title much of the book is about ‘online shaming’ and how different individuals have coped with it but on a larger scale it explores about what our obsession with shaming says about the human condition.

One of the case studies he discusses in the book is the Twitter storm that a woman called Justine Sacco found herself in after tweeting a joke before boarding a plane to South Africa. Ronson describes her as a jocular character and definitely one without malice. Unfortunately, she shared a badly worded joke that backfired so much that her life was almost ruined in the process. Here’s what happened:

Justine, who at the time worked for a Public Relations firm, was about to board a plane to South Africa and as she did she tweeted the following joke:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Justine SaccoShe sent that out to her 190 followers and boarded the plane and had a good snooze. Meanwhile, the ‘twitterverse’ went into meltdown as ordinary people from around the world shared the tweet in outrage and disgust. By the time Justine’s plane landed she was the worldwide number one trending name on Twitter. She received death threats, rape threats and calls for to be fired from her job. There were multiple hashtags calling for her sacking and even one in anticipation of arriving in Africa, ‘#HasJustineLandedYet. All of this was happening whilst she was blissfully unaware mid flight.

There was so much vitriol over her tweet that her employer terminated her employment and she didn’t get another job for a year. She went into hiding because of the death threats and was seriously worried for the safety of her family. She was utterly and completely ashamed. I should point out that it comes across very clearly in Ronson’s book, which contained several interviews with Sacco, that she does not come across as racist whatsoever. Her tweet was meant as an ironic joke between her and her friends and never as a racist comment. 

Ronson writes about how easy it to publicly shame someone with something like Twitter because we remain, more or less, anonymous. It’s also quite easy to do on Twitter, just a few movements of your fingers and thumbs and you can let someone know what you think of them. He has written about it with eloquence in the book and has several other articles you can read too. He also presented an excellent TED Talk.

Sites like Twitter enable us, the public, the ordinary people, to have a voice like we have never had before. Ronson referred to this as the, ‘democratisation of justice’,  and whilst that might sound like a positive thing we can also argue that it has brought about a very dark side of human nature. We could call this schadenfreude, the pleasure we gain from others misfortune, but what online shaming does is something far deeper because the effects of such massive public shaming on an individual can have dire results. Justine was lucky in a way because eventually she got through the shame and built her life back. But others have not been so fortunate. Online bullying continues to cause misery for millions. According to Cyber Bullying Statistics:

  • Around half of teens have been the victims of cyber bullying
  • Only 1 in 10 teens tells a parent if they have been a cyber bully victim
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 cyber bullying incidents are reported to law enforcement
  • 1 in 10 adolescents or teens have had embarrassing or damaging pictures taken of themselves without their permission, often using cell phone cameras
  • About 1 in 5 teens have posted or sent sexually suggestive or nude pictures of themselves to others
  • Girls are somewhat more likely than boys to be involved in cyber bullying

It feels so easy to shame someone on Twitter or to call out their racist, homophobic, misogynist behaviour and put the world to right. Ronson talks at length about this in his book, about how most of the people doing the shaming felt they were doing, ‘the right thing’, and let’s be honest, it does feel good to do the right thing, to call someone out for their inappropriate behaviour. Of course, what doesn’t feel good is if you’re the one being called out, especially if you didn’t mean any malice. It also doesn’t feel good to know that you’ve contributed to hurting someone’s feelings or even worse, gotten them fired. Or maybe it does to you?

Jon Ronson, author of ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

The internet is a wonderful thing. It is possibly one of the greatest inventions of all time. It has brought so many people together and formed giant communities which have allowed the disaffected and the isolated to feel like they belong to a community. It has allowed education to flourish like never before. Just look at Sugata Mitra’s, ‘Hole in the Wall’ for evidence of that! It has changed so much of our lives but there has also been a dark side. We can argue it has magnified the worst of humanity by its democratic nature of allowing easy access to said knowledge and communities. Yes, we have sites like, and but we also have 4chan (no link intended), we also have the Dark Net and we also have possibly the worst of them all, simply Internet comments sections and forums. It is in these places that it becomes so easy to call someone out and shame them. As much as Twitter has given us in terms of ‘Citizen Journalism’, it also has a huge power to belittle, to bully and to shame. But of course, it isn’t Twitter itself doing this, it is us, its users. Perhaps this is the is the price we have to pay for the ‘democratisation of justice’.

Further links for research:



Author: reno

I teach Media, Film, Video Games and Photography college level in the UK. I'm really into education technologies and creativity. I'm on Instagram.

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