Hetty Douglas and how 15 minutes of fame became 15 minutes of hate

The trend for shaming strangers online has created a generation of witch hunters - it's only a matter of time until you're the witch. 

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If you Googled the name “Hetty Douglas” three days ago, you would have been met with a smattering of links about the then-relatively unknown artist’s shows and interviews. Today, searching Douglas’ name uncovers an array of news stories and think pieces, which variously call the 25-year-old a “snob”, “privileged kid”, and “spoilt rich girl”.

Whether Douglas is or isn’t a privileged snob, there is no denying that she recently acted like one. Earlier this week, the UAL graduate posted a picture to her Instagram of two workwear-clad scaffolders in McDonald’s, alongside the caption: “these guys look like they got 1 GCSE.” After a Twitter user branded Douglas a “spoiled rich girl gentrifying south London” (to the tune of 18,000 retweets and 72,000 likes) Douglas made headlines – which in turn made a Google search result that will undoubtedly follow her for the rest of her life.

Douglas’ story isn’t even remotely unusual. In 1968 the artist Andy Warhol famously said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” and for decades, the internet has offered thousands of people their prophesised 15 minutes of fame. But now, thanks to an epidemic of social media pile-ons, most people get their 15 minutes of shame too. 

“It was quite eye-opening how little it took to make people hate me,” says Holly Brockwell, a technology journalist who tweets at @holly. In July, Brockwell tweeted a picture of one of her towels which had been ruined after a cleaner she hired used it to clean bleach. “It was about 1am when I discovered the offending towel, and I dashed out a grumpy tweet with a photo tagging Handy, the company I got the cleaner from,” she explains. Throughout the day, Brockwell received an “avalanche” of angry tweets that shamed for her not caring about workers’ rights, being a snob, and hating poor people.

“The anger I was getting mostly came from a good place: people thought I was getting a disadvantaged cleaner fired over an innocent mistake” says Brockwell, who tried to explain her stance on Twitter, only angering people more. “They created a whole narrative in their heads - I was accused of wanting a poor struggling mother to be fired, her kids to starve, while I lorded it over her like the privileged pomposity they thought I was. I initially thought I could counter all the anger with facts.”

Brockwell tried to explain that she wasn’t rich, votes Labour, and only hired a cleaner once because her mother was visiting. She also explained that the cleaner was a white male student and not – like many assumed – an impoverished mother figure. “It didn’t make a bit of difference. They didn’t want to talk about what actually happened, they just wanted to be angry.

“No nuance, no facts, it was just abuse.”

Arguably Douglas and Brockwell could or should have expected negative attention for their actions, as both are figures in the public eye. But nowadays, all it takes is a public social media profile to be shamed by thousands. When I reached out to a Twitter user with 600 followers who was recently publicly shamed by one with nearly 50,000, she declined to be interviewed for her “safety and sanity”. Recently the user tweeted criticism of some bloggers, and a famous social media user (who wasn’t @’d into the critical tweet) mocked her, indirectly inviting hundreds of her followers to do the same. “[It was] on par with an all-girls school kicking,” says the shamed user of the experience. Many high profile Twitter users seem to similarly delight in finding opinions they disagree with from people they've never met and exposing them to their followers. 

Justine Sacco is the most famous nobody who became somebody via online public shaming. Despite only having 170 followers, an offensive tweet she wrote was shared across the world and resulted in her getting fired, forcing her to keep a low profile to this day. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!” read the tweet that ruined her life. In an interview with Sacco published in the New York Times, journalist Jon Ronson reflected on similar incidents:

“In those early days [of Twitter shaming], the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. 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.”

Sacco’s story proves that even if online hate only lasts 15 minutes, the repercussions reverberate for years. More than anything, however, it proves that you don’t have to be in the public eye to be publically shamed. It can happen to anyone.

Slang phrases like “milkshake duck” and “your fave is problematic” reflect how ubiquitous shaming culture has become. People are ready – even eager – for celebrities and strangers to fall, as though by exposing someone as “bad” they can automatically mark themselves as “good”. A study published in July found that people who engage in online shaming tend to have a higher socioeconomic status and have a stronger belief in a just world (something that is particularly interesting when you consider the flack Douglas and Brockwell got for being "privileged" and "posh"). 

“The psychology that dictates why one would shame another hasn’t changed in thousands of years, it’s the method that’s changed,” explains psychotherapist Dr. Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking. Balick says projection is large aspect of social shaming. “It is what we call an ‘ego defence’ which enables one to feel better about themselves by locating 'badness' elsewhere.”

(In writing this piece, I have felt the urge to clarify repeatedly that the actions of Sacco and Douglas are obviously, obviously “bad”. But I defer to Ronson, who wrote in his seminal work So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that we should we should be able to talk about this without fearing for ourselves. Of articles about Sacco, Ronson wrote: “[They] read like the old media saying to social media, ‘Don't hurt me’.” Of course Sacco and Douglas acted shamefully – I shouldn’t have to say it. We can question the level of someone’s punishment and this doesn’t mean we’re questioning that they deserved to be punished at all.)

Although the motivations behind online and offline shaming are often the same, the phenomena are entirely different. Balick explains that shame traditionally maintains group cohesion and social conventions. “This is not the way it is deployed online,” he says, “where it is largely damaging to those who receive it. It has no redeeming purpose online as far I can tell. Even when deployed on the trolls themselves, they tend to enjoy the attention rather than be chastened by it.”

All of us are capable of publicly shaming others, but a certain type of people are predisposed, including those with vulnerable egos, people who are emotional, and individuals with anti-social tendencies. Yet the mechanics of social media (such as likes and retweets) can arguably bring out these traits in all of us. Online disinhibition is a phenomenon whereby we say things to others we wouldn’t say in real life. Who hasn’t had a vulnerable ego when their latest selfie only gets five likes? And strong emotions are frequently the most rewarded online.

Recent research by Dr Lydia Woodyatt, a psychology lecturer at Flinders University, has found that when it comes to extreme shaming, schadenfreude may be a deeper motivator than actual moral outrage. "While outrage and the belief that we can effect change motivates people to get involved (by sharing or liking), it is the component of schadenfreude that may lead to the more malicious nature of online shaming," she says. "Also an interesting point is that because this is the snowball turning into an avalanche type of phenomenon, people don’t have to post really hateful comments to add to the avalanche – every post, share, like or even disagreement still contribute to the growing online storm."

Because the ability to shame – and be shamed – is in all of us, Balick believes schools need to teach that our actions online affect others. “It would be best if such education were included at a young age – moving beyond internet safety and ‘stranger danger’ and introducing emotional intelligence online.” Without this, public shaming will only become more common, damaging individuals and society as a result.

It is peculiarly difficult to describe what it’s like to be shamed on the internet. It happened to me on a minor level recently, and the vitriol of the messages I received made me sob. The person who sent hate my way didn’t mean to (they were making a joke) and they probably didn’t realise what their followers were messaging me.

And couldn’t I have just looked away? Shouldn’t I turn my phone off or block and mute messages? People who haven’t been shamed assume ignoring it is simple, and that strangers online can’t really hurt you. In actuality, it is a disorientating and distressing experience, with strangers’ anger bubbling up into notifications on your screen, with not one of them willing to listen to you explain.

It is peculiarly difficult to describe what it’s like to be shamed on the internet, but that doesn’t matter. Because it will almost certainly happen to you. 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.