The internet can be a powerful social peer pressure tool to change attitudes and beliefs which, in turn, affects behavior for the better. But that sword of social peer justice is two sided and often used in rather sinister ways. People who have been foolish enough to say silly, stupid comments in public or online have found themselves trending on Twitter or Facebook with the results being public excoriation, fired from jobs, rape threats, and death threats. Public shaming, while as old as the hills, has taken on an unprecedented vigor to destroy, instead of simply issuing a public “slap”, those whose words or actions society has deemed unacceptable.
I’m sending you off to another web site to read the accounts of public shaming that have gone seriously awry. Journalist Jon Ronson wrote a New York Times Magazine article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” in which he notes, “I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.” Read it and come back for more discussion.
Internet bullying is not new to me. I’ve been online as “semi public figure” (so says my lawyer) for almost 20 years. I expect to get pilloried for my opinions and after years of “being in the kitchen”, I can handle the heat quite well. Yet there have been times that a few odd balls have tried to move beyond expression of disagreement into trying to negatively impact real life. Many years ago I authored a web page I called the “Vendor Hall of Shame” which predated EtiquetteHell.com. These shameful vendors were true menaces to society with falsified employment histories, Better Business Bureau negative ratings, criminal records of fraud, court records from disgruntled clients, etc. Four or five of the worst I created extensive web pages loaded with links to documents and referenced sources and were even vet checked by my attorney to keep it strictly to the facts. This was the positive side of public shaming, i.e. using the internet to expose and warn about disreputable people who would exploit people’s naivete in order to get clients. Journalist Jon Ronson, who wrote the previous mentioned article linked above, further recounts how he used public shaming to get his stolen identity back from individuals who could not be entreated to do so.
So, public shaming does have its place. The problems that Jon Ronson is identifying are when the punishment no longer fits the crime and the savage glee of those who go well beyond shaming someone to active pursuits to fire them from their jobs, destroy their lives, inflict severe emotional abuse with grievous threats. It could be argued that frauds. scammers, and con artists often earn the vitriol they receive but Ronson is referring to people who have made foolish, stupid, silly comments or images that have gone viral.
Do I think Lindsey Stone erred in posting a picture that could be easily misunderstood? Yes. Did she deserve to be fired from her job and threatened with death and rape? Absolutely not. But what concerns me about her case is that several real friends did express their opinion that they considered the image “tasteless” in a restrained, civil manner yet Stone dismissed these gentle rebukes and chose to leave the image up. So, there was a low level of public shaming that was ignored and once the image went viral, all hell broke loose. It was an extremely painful lesson on the consequences of publicizing one’s crass behavior and not listening to the good counsel of friends *but* I don’t think there is a person amongst us who hasn’t said something stupid at some point in our lives. There but for the grace of God go we.
Twitter has a major liability issue embedded in the whole concept of terse little blasts of information and that is a too high of a probability that whatever one tweets in those 144 characters will be misunderstood and definitely taken out of context. Too many battles appear to be waged with Twitter with news media reporting who tweeted what about this or that person and for that reason I do not have a Twitter account. Blabbermouth me cannot possibly convey what I accurately mean in so few words and there is something odd about presuming the world wants to know my snippets of thoughts at any given moment No, thank you, I choose to not ride the Twitter fad.