The Truth, you can’t handle the truth (unless you can dig deep) #64 #cong15

By Sharon Boyle.

I started to write this blog, diligently, in early September. Having a title in mind and fresh from reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, “You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write about. The world has changed dramatically since.

The book includes a story of two individuals that attracted worldwide attention because of a distasteful tweet – Justine Sacco (Figure 1) and a tongue in cheek image – Lindsey Stone (Figure 2). They may have said/done the wrong thing, but their actions weren’t malicious or didn’t cause one death, yet they have had their lives threatened and reputations utterly destroyed.


Figure 1 "That Tweet" by Justine Sacco


Figure 2 Lindsey Stone at Arlington Cemetery

At the time I was mystified at how people that had made (major) bloopers on social media could have such international hatred poured upon them and their lives effectively destroyed. Meanwhile, innocent people were dying in plastic boats while trying to escape extreme violence and tyranny, and the same politically correct mob didn’t seem to have much outrage to express at this unfolding tragedy.

Then it happened, one image of one tragic death in the midst of thousands of deaths, and the world was ready to listen, and react. A small body that washed up on a Turkish beach lit up social media overnight and suddenly the world was ready to “like and share”. Why did it take this image to make people understand the harsh reality of what was happening?

The positive side of igniting the mob like this is how effective it can be in pressuring governments to act – fast. Everyone is afraid of the mob. CEO’s, celebrities and politicians are all terrified of that “faux pas” they may utter (or tweet) that could bring the mob’s ire upon them.

In the last 10 years, technology has made the world seem smaller, borders disappear and make vast amounts of information easily available. In this ever connected world, we feel empowered, we can express our feelings and outrage and feel validated when others mirror or respond to our outpourings.

Google makes us feel like we can query the world of information, but how accurate is its response? When we type in our search, we are goal orientated, how valid the responses are isn’t really a consideration. We all know that Facebook unashamedly filters our newsfeed, but, Google wouldn’t lie to us...or would it?

If we take our blinkers off and dig a little deeper, the realisation may be that many people don’t want to know about “the world of information”, and aren’t on a quest for enlightenment – they want to validate their world, their beliefs, their passions and they want to find information that affirms rather than enlightens.

There is always a conflict for me between the convenience of personalisation and the filtering of my online world. If our beliefs aren’t challenged, how can we grow and extend our horizons? How can we escape being sucked into the mob and answering the call to a public flaying? I know I’m often guilty of being the bystander – not wishing to get involved because the angry mob might turn on me if I tell them to “cop on”, unsure if anyone else would come to my rescue.

Friday the 13th of November changed our world in a swift and brutal way. As dramatically as the image on the Turkish beach caused outcry to help the Syrian refugees, the social tide turned to demand borders to be put up, many calling for no more refugees to be accepted because of the risk that one ISIL radical might cause an international crisis.

Naivety is as the heart of this reaction. Humans want to feel safe, it is in our nature to follow the path or people that validate our biases and, above all, make us feel safe. The problem is that puppet masters understand this and use it to manipulate mob sentiment.

As a technologist, I embrace big data, analytics, cloud, social platforms. But as a human, I’m fearful of the dependency, exploitation and manipulation that can spring from these technologies. We are fast approaching a point where we are utterly reliant on these technologies in our everyday lives. 

One of my muses in the 90’s was Dilbert (Scott Adams). Working in corporate America, the comic strips were cathartic. “The Dilbert Principle” (1996) was written before social media and Google rocked our world. This excerpt (Figure 3) gets the last word:

Figure 3 The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams


So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson (2015). 

The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams (1996).

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie