The dangers of public shaming, mob justice and scolding on the internet

Even when people are obviously wrong, is shaming them on the internet a good way to improve the world?

Whether it’s a woman issuing a racist tweet heard around the world; bigots judging a woman’s abilities, whether as a sportsperson or journalist, on her looks; an irritable (but evidently non-existent) fellow passenger on a plane; men making silly sexist comments at a tech convention; high school students making racist remarks about Obama’s re-election – all were targets of public shaming through digital media, most predominantly social. It’s both tempting and easy to shame such people with modern digital platforms (a retweet, capturing and storing screenshots, etc). But even when such people are so obviously morally wrong, we must question the efficacy of public shaming – as a form of response.

That it’s easy to use social media for public shaming isn't enough reason to do so. Bigger questions are at stake: proportionality is an essential factor in trying to redress wrongs, since we don’t get moral immunity for being morally right. Shooting someone who takes your parking space, for example, isn’t right just because the thief was wrong.

Wrongs shouldn’t go unpunished, of course, and just because we should question the practice of public shaming doesn’t mean we never respond to wrong or bad behaviour at all; it only means we should act wiser and better – it means reflecting on whether initiating or participating in public shaming is actually a good option.

There appear to be two major problems with public shaming.

Problem 1: Public shaming becomes – and/or is – another name for mob justice

With digital platforms and followers, pointing at something can be the same as shooting a magic spell made of an outraged audience.

Let’s take a fairly innocuous but very public example. After Nelson Mandela’s death, an alleged Paris Hilton tweet was retweeted and posted and mocked widely. Supposedly, Hilton thanked Mandela for writing the “I have a dream” speech. People quickly informed Ms Hilton that she was all kinds of idiot, all kinds of female anatomy parts, all kinds of waste product.

Annoyingly for the name-callers (including the prestigious Foreign Policy), there is no evidence to suppose Hilton ever sent such a tweet. But to those doing the shaming, did it really matter? All that mattered was a reason to deride, to hate, to show how much better and smarter these people were than a "dumb reality show star".

We are better than her.

By displaying examples of racism or sexism or other forms of bigotry; by showing kids who mock Olympic athletes or any of the people listed in the first paragraph; our public shaming invites us to form a conglomerate of the morally righteous to beat these people with our Ethics Sticks. We respond sometimes with even worse messages - expletives, namecalling and threats - than what was initially articulated. But no hypocrisy is noticed because we, after all, are morally right and we can, therefore, do no wrong. Just look how many others are doing it, too!

If you think you have moral immunity in how you respond to an act you deem wrong, if you’re bolstered by witnessing mutual reaction and views from others to the wrong act, this is essentially mob justice.

And mob justice is not, in fact, justice due to the inherent unfairness.

Taken together, those “accusing” have voices which vastly overpower the accused, meaning that there is no way for Hilton to respond to the accusation. In the case above, when she and others pointed out that she hadn't sent the tweet, few people corrected themselves.

It is an essential feature of modern law to presume innocence and give an accused individual the ability to respond on an equal platform to allegations of wrongdoing. But this cannot be the case when everyone is more interested in laughing at and mocking and threatening an alleged wrongdoer than in assessing whether the wrongdoer is actually guilty. 

Problem 2: No regulation, no middle ground, no persons

Mob justice’s worrying element then is precisely that the “accusers” are also the judges, the juries, the executioners: there is no one “above” the group. The idea of a defence is unknown, there is only someone to be punished by shaming.

This inability to respond should worry all of us. Celebrities at least have professional managers and PR firms, who can work round the clock; they have secure enough incomes that, even after such public mishaps, they won’t be destitute.

But for us mortals, we have no such luxury.

If you are some unknown person who is terrible at making crude jokes, anyone can decide to target you for shaming. Including Buzzfeed reporters with over 100,000 Twitter followers. Many of us don’t have the million-dollar lawyers and PR firm to help us respond: we’re one person, fighting down the voices of the self-righteous many.

When I pointed out that Justine Sacco was a target of hate, many emailed expressing dismay that I would compare Sacco to other bullying victims. “She deserved everything she got!” I was told. Her tweet made her deserving of death and rape threats, of being followed and tracked, of being photographed by a stranger? They claimed yes: because “She was wrong”, remember, and they were right.

Apparently, there can be no mistakes on the internet, made by a fallible human, with emotions and spur-of-the-moment responses. Either you’re with them or against them. This is the digital mob and its form of punishment can turn on anyone: no matter how famous; no matter how deserving. Proportionality is as important as truth – in other words, somewhat irrelevant.

This should be worrying to all of us, even if we’re not racists, homophobes or other kinds of bigots.

We forget that, by definition, platforms of all kinds create a caricature of the user. There are no Sauron-like villains, emitting evil and hate – it’s human being, people with failures and loves and hates and passions and families and friends. Yet, we see a single tweet and judge them; we see a single blogpost and determine his or her entire worth.

There’s no need to be a racist to see that wanting an alleged racist to be raped is wrong: we’re still dealing with people, not a picture on your monitor. With no bigger authority, there is no way to direct this outrage in ways that might actually be beneficial, to call a halt to furious cries. Consider, for example, how during the outrage of Justine Sacco, someone bought a domain with her name and redirected it to an Aids charity. In one swoop, it showed the idiocy of Sacco’s tweet and got people to channel their rage into a beneficial direction. This didn’t just say “Look at this dumb racist!” and let slip the pugs of outrage.

Whither our outrage?

None of this means outrage is bad. It just means unchecked outrage – comprising only of scorn - which so often results from publicly shaming, is unhelpful, if not a hindrance. There are better ways to respond than knee-jerk anger, even if the other person is wrong (or you’re told he’s wrong by someone you regard as an authority.)

Being morally right is not enough. We must be able to convey that morally: responding to a racist with a snarky joke or thoughtful blogpost is miles away from responding with a fist. Responses don’t have the same moral weight just because the responses are defending a (proper) moral position.

And public shaming, as we’ve noted, is highly problematic: there is no encouragement to ascertain truth (Hilton didn’t confuse Dr King and Mandela, but who cares?); no dialogue is created, only a target painted on someone’s back. Even if you abhor threats, you can’t control all people’s reactions nor who will see your tweet, your Facebook post, your photo of the racist, sexist, etc. And, even if someone did make a public fool of himself, it’s hard to support the pile-on of threats and responses when it takes a serious toll on actual people’s lives, when there’s little evidence his bad behaviour significantly harmed anyone. There will always be people who hold stupid beliefs, but public shaming doesn’t seem like a moral way to respond when it’s dependent on an unregulated “public”.

Are we silent on racism? Of course not. Nor are we silent about sexism or other forms of bigotry, just because we don’t publicly shame. There are many ways to respond and, if we genuinely care about combating bigotry and stupidity, we must assess whether our responses are themselves helpful to the cause.

Again, just because you’re responding to racism or sexism doesn’t make your response right. I’ve seen no good come of publicly shaming someone, when public shaming is the sole response. Sure, someone is also shamed after being rightfully convicted, fired, etc, but there ‘justice’ wasn’t merely a retweet.

(Digital) public shaming as the sole method of response, in terms of justice, should not be implemented. As perhaps a by-product of other kinds of justified responses, we may support it. However, I am still hesitant and, if I wish to highlight terrible beliefs or views, I default to anonymise the person (as much as possible), when using social media.

When there can be an equality of platform, like say blogs or columns, this becomes irrelevant – but there, inherent unfairness is potentially undermined (and it’s not about just threatening the other person!).

We must remember that, even though they may act bigoted, we’re still dealing with people, who have friends, family and loved ones; we must remember that combating bigotry takes on a moral dimension not only in terms of beliefs but responses.

 

Wrongs shouldn’t go unpunished, of course, but we should be able to act wiser and better. Photo: Getty
Charlie Leight/Getty
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Following Donald Trump in New Hampshire

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul - but Trump is impossible to ignore.

Donald Trump doesn’t miss a beat. When a man in the front row of a packed school auditorium shouted, “We don’t want a scripted president,” he bellowed straight back, “No you don’t! And you don’t want a politically correct president,” a comment that sent the thousand-strong audience into a raucous standing ovation.

It was classic Trump: a move aimed at underlining his credentials as a populist, anti-politics insurgent. For bemused outsiders, his stump speech on 14 August at Winnacunnet High School in the tidy New Hampshire town of Hampton offered fresh insights into the methods by which Donald Trump has successfully hijacked the Republican race for the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul. Trump’s campaign is powered by little more than personality and wealth. His pitch features few policies beyond building a giant wall along the Mexican border and putting his business associates in positions where they can strike better deals than the current administration. His campaign shtick resembles nothing so much as a stand-up comedy show. On Iraq: “It isn’t even a country. It’s a bunch of corrupt people.” On oil: “Iran, Isis, everybody has it but us.” And on China: “You hear that sucking sound? You know what that means . . . jobs, money.”

And yet he is impossible to ignore. Trump has led the polls for the Republican nomination since declaring his intention to run on 16 June – in a speech that accused Mexico of sending both rapists and murderers to the US. In New Hampshire he has a double-digit lead over Jeb Bush, who remains the favourite to win the nod, given his record as governor of Florida and his party connections – not least his father, George, and brother George W. This makes Trump the people’s choice.

Something similar is happening among Democrats. Although Hillary Clinton has a monopoly on donors and party grandees, Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont, is making a move in the polls. The US version of Jeremy Corbyn – the unreconstructed lefty selected to balance the debate – offers a different way of doing things from Clinton, who comes from a tired elite, or so runs the familiar argument.

And this is Trump’s main message: the rich are running politics for their advantage, donating money to the establishment in return for favours when they return to office. “Who knows it better than me?” he boasted to more whoops from the audience. “I’ve contributed to everyone.”

Trump acts like a heckler on stage. It’s his brash honesty that appeals to the likes of Bob Pennell, an orthopaedic surgeon who had travelled from neighbouring Massachusetts to see him speak. “He is shining the light on the rich and how they use the government,” Pennell said. “I always suspected it. But now I know.”

The result of such poor leadership, Trump argues, is that the US has lost its place as the dominant global economy – hence that sucking sound from China. It’s a message that strikes a chord with an audience that feels squeezed financially at home and sees its country adrift in the world.

Trump’s larger-than-life persona – and frequent, unverifiable boasts that his net worth stands at $10bn – felt like a throwback to days gone by, when “the American dream still meant something”, according to Jimmy Riordan, a diesel engine parts engineer. “It’s a cut-throat world and he’s the best businessman,” he said.

Quite what a Trump administration would look like, however, is anyone’s guess. In a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, he committed to federal investigations into the treatment of army veterans and the Environmental Protection Agency. An audience member asked if he would send astronauts to Mars. Trump smiled, saying he would first fix the US’s crumbling roads and airports. “Who’s better at infrastructure than Trump?” he asked, to more laughter.

Even a string of glaring gaffes has failed to dent his lead. Most recently he tried to undermine Megyn Kelly of Fox News after she probed his attitude towards women. Her dogged questioning, Trump said, was down to “blood coming out of her wherever”.

Yet to his supporters in the school auditorium, this kind of comment is not a misstep but a breath of fresh air. They say it shows he is his own man, that his personal fortune frees him from the need for spin doctors, lobbyists or donors who would seek favours should he reach office. Even his opponents can sense the appeal. “He doesn’t have to have their influence,” said Kerri Ruggiero, who is campaigning in the state for George Pataki, the Republican former New York governor, who is failing to gain traction. “It’s just him.”

Not everyone at the stump speech was a supporter. In New Hampshire, people take their responsibility as an early primary state seriously. A good showing here in February can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In the 1968 Democratic primaries, Eugene McCarthy came within 7 per cent of Lyndon B Johnson, a close enough result to force the sitting president to announce he would not run for re-election. Some showed up last Friday to gauge whether Trump was a credible figure. Others came to make a point. Noah Thompson, an 18-year-old student, wore a giant golden sombrero to protest against Trump’s comments about Mexicans.

“I probably would have voted for him,” Thompson confessed as the crowd headed for the exits, “if he hadn’t opened his mouth for two months.”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars