Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Internet Shaming in the Social Media Age: Is it Right?

Is Internet Shaming Always OK?
Publicly shaming bad behavior is as old as mankind, but in the Social Media Age it seems to happen more frequently and it certainly happens a lot faster.

Various cases in the past year or so have highlighted the rapidity and breadth of consequences for people perceived to have wronged others. Just a few examples:
  • Justine Sacco, communications director for the New York-based internet empire InterActive Corp, tweeted before she boarded a flight in December 2013: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" By the time she landed in South Africa the Internet outrage was about to lead to her firing.
  • Author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), presenting at the National Book Awards in November, told an insensitive anecdote about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon. When Internet outrage ensued he promised a $10,000 donation to and to match up to another $100,000 in gifts to We Need Diverse Books.
    Curt Schilling
    Curt Schilling
  • Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling congratulated his daughter, Gabby, on Twitter Feb. 25, 2015 for her acceptance into Salve Regina University. Two Twitter users used this as an opportunity to make lurid comments about his daughter. He responded by outing Adam Negal and Sean MacDonald in a blog post called "Is it Twitters fault?" As a result the two young men were blasted on Twitter. They shut down their accounts and Negal was subsequently suspended from his community college in New Jersey.
Some clearly think this online Internet shaming is OK, even laudable.

Alex Reimer writing for the online news site BostInno in Boston says the Schilling online shaming is an example of "how the Internet can be used for the greater good."

In a piece called Curt Schilling Publicly Shamed 2 Cyber Bullies, & It Was Awesome he says: "If the humiliation Nagel and MacDonald have suffered stops even one cyber bully from hurling personal insults behind the comfort of his keyboard, then this may be one of Schilling's greatest accomplishments."
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg

But Alyssa Rosenberg, who blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section, has a different point of view. In a piece called Why I stopped shaming online harassers she asks, among other questions: "What kind of speech should trigger consequences?" and "Who gets to pass judgement?"

In a thoughtful summation of several instances of people who have been punished online, some for things they did and one because an ex-boyfriend impersonated an innocent woman, Rosenberg concludes: "Until we get a better handle on these precedents, I’ll be sticking to my Mute button rather than reaching for Retweet to expose angry people to a wider audience which might feel moved to chastise them."

"Knowing that the people who want to say ugly things about me online are shouting into the void feels like punishment enough."

Laura Hudson, a writer at Wired magazine offered a cautionary tale in her July, 2013 piece Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on the Social Media. In the piece she recounts an incident at a tech conference called PyCon where two males' talk - using sexually suggestive double entendre - within earshot of a female attendee led the latter to tweet out a picture of the two and comment on their inappropriate behavior. She had a large Twitter following and the online reaction was swift and loud. One of the young men's employers recognized his employee and fired him. When there was an equal backlash to the firing the young woman lost her job too.

Hudson says it’s as if online shaming "has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods."

"Increasingly, our failure to grasp our online power has become a liability — personally, professionally, and morally. We need to think twice before we unleash it," she writes.
Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk
Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Another, perhaps unlikely, voice against Internet shaming is that of Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was involved with President Clinton. In a March 2015 TED Talk called The Price of Shame she calls for a revolution away from the culture of humiliation towards an "internet community of empathy and compassion." While admitting she made mistakes as a 22-year-old the now 42-year-old says she knows better than most how painful and long-lasting Internet shaming can be.

And then there's this: The Gawker writer who first outed Justine Sacco’s seeming racially insensitive tweet about AIDS and Africa, Sam Biddle, wrote a follow-up piece in March, 2015 called Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With Her.

In it he writes about a dinner meeting with Sacco during which he realized that her original tweet had been a poor attempt at irony, that his quick retweet had ruined her life and that he needed to say sorry.

So, what do you think? In the social media age should shaming be an acceptable response to perceived online wrongs or inappropriate behavior (online or otherwise)? And, if so, should it be within some kind of personal guidelines and only under certain circumstances? Or should it be something we avoid altogether?

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