For acclaimed journalist Jon Ronson, no source is too far away or too extreme to speak to – from a man who believes lizards rule the world, to a convicted warlord. He talks to Vision about the profound value of telling stories that break rules
Jon Ronson challenges conventional wisdom when he sees social media fomenting ‘echo chambers’ of like-minded people in his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In fact, he has dedicated his life to challenging the norm – now the author of ten best-selling books on journalism, as well as documentaries, films and radio shows, Ronson has always stood out as a writer committed to understanding the people of whom society is most afraid – the extreme, the hated, and the ostracised.
In his book Them: Adventures with Extremists, for example, Ronson travels the world to meet extreme theorists and activists, and is thrust into the lives of white supremacists and radical religious extremists alike. For his later books, he spends time with the likes of psychopaths and mind-control experts – all in the search for a better understanding of their behaviour.
Though his works are always shrouded in his own subjective insight and trademark witty remarks, many wonder why Ronson brings humanity – even empathy – to the people whom society is often quick to reject.
“I think I became a journalist after being bullied at school,” Jon Ronson tells the crowd at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Shunned by his peers for being overweight and awkward, Ronson was “forced to the edge of the playground” which he believes made him “look in, and question why people do what they do.”
In fact, bullying is at the core of his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which studies the phenomenon of internet shaming, particularly on Twitter. In recent years, the internet has seen a rise in participatory bullying, with the masses turning on people who they believe to be ‘wrong’, creating viral hashtags to shame and demean them. The first of Ronson’s subjects, for example, is Justine Sacco, who shared a (perhaps inadvertently) racist tweet to her 170 followers before boarding a plane. When she landed 11 hours later, she was the most hated person on the internet, and had been fired from her job.
His book received a wave of backlash from people who believed Ronson was giving a voice to those who did not deserve to be heard – racists and liars. But this, in a sense, has been the crux of Ronson’s career – from jihadists to perceived “madmen”, Ronson has always sought to tell the stories that we are most uncomfortable telling.
As Ronson wrote the book from 2013 to 2015, the journalist describes a worldwide rise in what he calls “aggressive authoritarianism”. “We all polluted the waters,” he says, and out of them rose a new wave of radical politics, which spread into wider society.
“They used to say, ‘Facebook is where you lie to your friends, Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers,” says Ronson. “But that has changed.” In what he calls the “democratisation of judgement”, social media users from all walks of life have turned brash, with radical responses towards those with who hold differing opinions. This, he believes has “driven people into echo chambers”. People will occupy online spaces with friends who almost always agree with their opinion or the information shared in those spaces. Any rare outside input is quick to be torn down and disregarded.
“This book was the most painful one to write,” says Ronson. Unlike his other works, where he exposed a select few of society’s ‘monsters’, Ronson says in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we were the monsters. "These people were destroyed by us – we were more frightening than psychopaths."
“We were all surprised when the [contemporary political landscape] began changing,” says Ronson, but it was only because we were stuck in echo chambers, blind to the opinions of others.
“I am hopeful,” says Ronson of the future of the internet, and of society as a whole, but he insists that we must “preach empathy, and preach compassion”, in order to avoid further social disruption.
This sentiment is at the heart of Ronson’s commitment to unpredictable paths and uncomfortable storytelling. By centring his books on difficult subjects, Ronson breaks through the walls of our echo chambers, and reminds his readers that even the most extreme people should not be immediately shunned. “There is a moral core at the heart of my stories,” says Ronson, reminding his readers that, ultimately, we are all human.