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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. 

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 a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.