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
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.