Back in February, we checked in on Justine Sacco, the PR professional whose life was upended after the internet shamed her for an AIDS joke she made on Twitter. Much of the background on that piece came from a New York Times article by Jon Ronson, an author many of you may know for books he’s written that eventually became the movies Men Who Stare at Goats and Frank. A couple of weeks ago, he released another book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which explores the nature of online shaming and profiles some of the people most notorious for having their lives ruined by one mistake they made on the internet, be it in a Facebook, Instagram, or a Twitter post.
Aside from Sacco, Ronson also profiles Lindsey Stone, the woman in this photograph whose life was absolutely destroyed by the internet because someone in a pro-military group found that photo online and posted it. It went viral in a matter of hours, and before long, a “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page had been created, which quickly attracted 12,000 likes.
In fact, it soon got much worse than that. The “Fire Lindsey Stone” calls morphed into the “Set Fire to Lindsey Stone,” and social media soon filled with messages like, “Die, c*nt … Cut out her uterus … Rape her …”
But as with the case of Justine Sacco’s tweet, that photo was robbed of its context. Yes, it might have been disrespectful, but what most people didn’t know was that it was a part of a series of photos that Stone and her friend posted to Facebook, where they’d goof on signs by doing the opposite of what they said (for instance, by loitering near a “No Loitering” sign or skateboarding near a “No Skateboarding” sign).
The truth of the matter was, by all accounts, Lindsey Stone was a very good person. “You couldn’t hope for a better human being,” Ronson told the Reply All podcast. She worked for a nonprofit for adults with learning disabilities. The picture was actually taken when they took their clients to a trip in Washington, D.C. to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “We thought it might be funny to us to take a picture mocking the sign and doing the opposite of appearing silent and respectful,” Stone said in an interview with the BBC.
That’s all it was. It was not designed to be disrespectful. It was not meant as a political statement. It was one of many in a series of photos. In fact, it was posted on her Facebook page for a month before anyone even noticed it.
But when they did, the internet ruined her. She was fired from her job. She stopped leaving her house. She stopped sleeping. She also became obsessed with reading comments about herself, worried that she’d never land another job again.
Two years later, she did eventually land another job, working with children with autism, though she remained terrified that she’d be found out. She got some help in that regard from the website Reputation.com, which gave her $100,000+ in work to help her online reputation by burying those posts about her photograph. It worked, too, at least until Ronson’s book came out. From the sound of it, she’s doing well in her life again. She’s been told, in fact, by the parents of clients that “you were made for [this work.]”
However, it does prove the same point that the Justin Sacco story illustrated: Beware of what you post on social media. The internet doesn’t understand context, and it’s unforgiving of stupid mistakes. On the other hand, the next time you consider shaming someone on social media, try and remember that they are real people with real lives and real feelings and that we may not — in fact, probably do not — understand the whole story.