With a general election just round the corner, we should be wary of those who try to silence British satirists.
The rise of internet journalism has brought with it a new wave of satire. At the same time, it has created a new wave of denunciators of satire. Just as more people than ever can mock and be mocked, so more people than ever can declare that they are shocked by such mockery, leaving journalists to adjudicate, and in some cases to manufacture and manipulate a grey area between derision and defamation.
One such British pop-outrage journalist is Jon Ronson, whose new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was recently excerpted in the Guardian. It purports to be an account of "a trio of academics who stole Jon Ronson’s online identity". At first, it sounds like a great story: evil professors doing criminal things! One reads on in expectation of the inevitable involvement of the police, sackings of said professors, and an ensuing court drama.
But none of that happens. Instead, Ronson describes meeting three people, some of whom seem exceedingly annoyed with him, who criticize his manipulativeness and try to talk to him about high-frequency trading algorithms. The police never arrive; no-one is arraigned on a charge of identity theft; and we’re completely deprived of the satisfying scene where the evil professors are handcuffed and humiliated and led off to jail.
At this point the reader might start to smell a rat. Identity theft is, after all, an extremely serious matter, and generally a criminal offence. Surely there would have been legal consequences of some kind? It all starts to seem a bit unlikely.
Indeed, it's so unlikely that one suspects Ronson has made it up. And of course, that's exactly what he has done. In actual fact, there were no academics who stole Ronson’s identity. That’s a story he’s invented to cover up the fact that a satirist made a parody of him, and that he couldn’t stand being parodied. How do I know? Well, I’m one of the alleged evil professors Ronson talks about.
A fan of satire except...
In 2012 David Bausola, CEO and sole employee of his own social media company, made a satirical Twitter bot of Ronson. I knew of Bausola from seeing a presentation he gave at a conference the previous year. The Guardian had got in touch with Bausola, asking him to use his algorithms with their database to make a satirical TV show. His idea was that he would create a parody political party, composed of robot candidates for Parliament, which would tweet remixed versions of real MPs’ speeches. After all, Bausola said, the way politicians talk nowadays, you can’t tell the difference between them or their messages anyway. Like all satire, it was aimed at keeping the most prominent members of public life honest.
Bausola’s parody of Ronson was called @jon_ronson, close to Ronson's own name, like many Twitter parodies of better-known personages such as Elizabeth Windsor (@Queen_UK), Richard H Dawkins (@RichardDawkins), and Iain Duncan Smith MP (@IDS_MP). Unlike those parodies, it signalled its character as a fake rather more clearly: it had a digitally-generated caricature of his photo as its avatar, and its bio ran "made in response to the real Jon Ronson".
I was on sabbatical from my post at the University of Cologne, editing a book on J. G. Ballard, when Bausola asked me to come and meet Ronson with him, and explain my own research on computer algorithms and the evolution of technology. I liked Bausola’s and The Guardian’s idea of using social media to make a new, technologically-savvy Spitting Image, so I agreed to come along. I’d never heard of Ronson - he’s not exactly a household name in Germany – and I’d only met Bausola twice, but I liked what he was doing and thought it was culturally valuable. So I looked Ronson up online briefly, and saw that he was a Guardian journalist with an interest in bots. When we met, however, Ronson turned out not to be interested in bots at all. He was only interested in his own parody. Ronson really didn't like being parodied.
Instead of having a conversation about modern technology, I found myself pinned on a sofa between a satirist I barely knew (the very unacademic Bausola) and a freelance researcher (Luke Robert Mason) who seemed as surprised as I was. The whole conversation turned into a defence of parody. A fan of satire except when it’s satire of him, Ronson subsequently published a YouTube video of the meeting, heavily edited down from two hours to twelve minutes, and manipulated to make it look as though all three people he met were one team who had made a bot that stole his identity. There ensued a campaign of trolling, in which Ronson laughed as his online followers bombarded both the satirist and those who defended the satire with death-threats, and gave public lectures in which he talked about stabbing them in the face.
A few months after Ronson published the video of the meeting Bausola, the guy who made the parody, killed it, and disappeared. He hasn't been seen since then, online or off. No-one who knew him seems to know where he is now, and his social media accounts on Twitter and elsewhere have remained silent.
Ronson doesn't mention any of this. And one feels for his predicament. He can hardly tell the truth. How I Hounded A Satirist Into Hiding might have made for a more accurate title, but it wouldn’t reflect particularly well upon the author.
Nor does he quote much from the caricature of him. It’s a pity he doesn’t. Despite the disadvantage of being merely a bit of computer code, and hence presumably not as intelligent as Ronson, the parody managed to be funnier. Obsessed with tweeting absurdly hipsterish recipes involving wasabi croissants and lemongrass cocoa, the bot perfectly punctured the moral posturing of the real Ronson. Perhaps this is why he avoids quoting it, jealous of his own parody being more amusing than him.
"I miss the fun a little"
Even for the reader unaware of the true story, Ronson's own unconscious inconsistencies and self-contradictions make it clear that his account is unreliable to say the least. Once you’ve spotted the cuts in his videos, you all the more easily see the equivalent cracks and seams in his written accounts, and knowing that so much is being omitted rather spoils the trick. His narrative principally meanders from one anecdotal account to another, of people who have been attacked by Twitter and YouTube vigilantes. Certain figures recur, most prominently Jonah Lehrer - the New Yorker columnist who apparently invented some quotes from Bob Dylan. As we read Ronson writing about Lehrer, the whole experience of reading the book becomes one of nausea. We queasily suspect that we're reading a book about journalists with a weakness for making things up, written by a journalist with, er, a weakness for making things up.
Ronson concludes with page after page of acknowledgements, in which he describes what he calls his research, and it’s here that his disingenuousness comes into open view. He reveals that after one solitary telephone conversation, Lehrer asked Ronson not to write about him, for the sake of his wife and family - but Ronson decides that "his experience was too vital to leave out". Leaving aside the fact that one telephone conversation doesn’t exactly constitute research, Ronson seems to feel no shame in treating Lehrer in this way.
Of course, the true subject of Ronson's investigation isn't mob justice, or public shaming, or social media. Like all accounts of witch-hunts written by those who lead them, it's about the author. Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World, published in 1693, presented just such an apparently even-handed account of the Salem witch-trials, with Mather painting a picture of himself as a distant, impartial observer. In actual fact Mather was the driving force behind the trials and, following the publication of his account, attempted to set up more witch-trials in Boston. His book was an act of false piety, a self-serving attempt to whitewash his own wickedness so that he could continue it.
Similarly, this book is really about how Jon Ronson’s opinion of Jon Ronson is that Jon Ronson is too famous and important to be parodied. It’s about how Jon Ronson would like to appoint himself the Witchfinder General of the 21st century, but fears that adopting such a role might backfire on him. The appalling thing is that, even by the end, he still hasn’t entirely decided that mob justice is vile, nor does he really reject his role in leading it. "I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of anybody", he writes, then immediately reverses, "unless they’ve committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little." It’s interesting, just not in the way Ronson means it to be. As an investigation of public shaming it fails, primarily because Ronson fails to understand that it’s impossible to feel shame for something one didn’t do in the first place. But as an unintentional self-portrait of the psychopathology of a professional troll, it’s a roaring success.
Satire, parody, and mockery: our most valuable tools
Much more important than anything Ronson has to say is the fact that he can say it without fear. But free speech isn’t worth having if those who are have a privileged platform abuse their position in order to manipulate their readership. We have plenty of laws in the UK that restrict free speech, and which in theory prevent journalists from making false allegations about others or promoting hatred. At the same time we have plenty of newspapers that, currently free from all regulation, simply ignore free speech and the right of reply, publishing whatever calumnies they want. The consequence is that democratic debate and discussion is closed down, leaving the private citizen only one option: to become the very creature they abhor by resorting to the bullying of a libel action. The Guardian, a newspaper that makes much of its commitment to a right of reply, did in fact refuse the right of reply to the present author.
At present and in the eyes of the UK press, press freedom is very much not the same thing as free speech. Satire, parody, and mockery are our best public tools against the media’s manipulation of our democracy. With a general election just round the corner, we should be wary of those who try to silence our own British satirists.