Have you ever lost your temper with a customer service representative, or argued with your partner in a restaurant? If so, you could become a YouTube celebrity.
That’s because a cottage industry has grown up around humiliating people and organisations by exposing their bad behaviour online – otherwise known as public shaming. As Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr report in their recent book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, now anyone can record your worst moments and sell the video evidence to one of several companies which buy the rights to embarrassing clips. (Those companies then make money from YouTube ad sales and fees from television shows that replay the videos.) In other words, there’s now a financial incentive for strangers to publicly shame you.
Sometimes, people are exposed for relatively minor errors of judgment that come to define them for the rest of their lives. Other times, they’re shamed for things they didn’t even do – like when people have been incorrectly identified as criminals or white supremacists online. Either way, good luck getting a job or a date afterwards. Such episodes can be so harrowing that they cause post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Scheff and Schorr.
It’s a situation early Americans tried to prevent. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence, argued that the practice “is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death.” Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, reports that punishment by public shaming – such as parading criminals through the town square – was abolished in every state but Delaware by 1837.
But shaming can also be good for society, because it allows us to hold people and organisations responsible for bad behaviour. Witness the ad Dove posted in October showing a black woman turning into a white woman with its product. The picture immediately generated lots of criticism online, and rightly so. The company apologised. Similarly, in January, activists exposed the identity of Mike Enoch, a prolific podcaster who founded the website The Right Stuff. Enoch, who peddles in horrific racism and anti-Semitism, deserved to be called out for his abuse. He was fired by his employer.
Or take Twitter’s decision to suspend the account of actress Rose McGowan in October while she was talking about sexual harassment. While Twitter said it was concerned that McGowan publicly posted someone's personal phone number, it should have removed that specific tweet rather than freezing her entire account. Some women (including me) responded by boycotting Twitter for a day. That was an appropriate way to demonstrate disapproval.
So, when is it okay to cyber-shame people and organisations, and when is it unreasonable and grotesque? I suggest a few rules. First, we should make sure we have our facts straight. For example, if someone tweets from a verified Twitter account, an event is reported by a legitimate news organisation, or a person is convicted of a crime, it’s safe to assume it happened. But we should never cyber-shame someone unless we’re absolutely certain they’ve done what we’re complaining about.
Second, we should consider whether the behaviour we’re upset about is likely to be a fair representation of the actor's character. If a company or person posts something on social media or gives a statement to the press, it’s fair to criticise them for it, because they’ve chosen to present themselves to the world in that manner. But, even though people are always responsible for their behaviour, we should consider not exposing others for minor infractions – like the exhausted mom who has a meltdown on the playground – unless there’s evidence the behaviour is part of a larger pattern. Such episodes could represent their most terrible transgressions and not who they typically are – but if we share it on social media, it could define them forever.
In all instances, we must be civil. We shouldn’t call people names. Rather, we should rationally argue why we think they’re wrong.
Let the person who has never had a bad day be the first to tweet. — Bloomberg
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