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The disquieting rise of “search and shame”

The psychology behind – and consequences of – unearthing people’s old tweets. 

It’s happened twice in the last 24 hours – and three times in the last week. On Tuesday, grime artist Stormzy made headlines for using the words “faggot”, “fag”, and “proper gay” in tweets sent between 2011 and 2014. Also on Tuesday, YouTuber Jack Maynard left the reality TV programme I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! after The Sun unearthed tweets from 2011 to 2013  in which he’d used the words “n*ggas”, “retarded”, and “faggot”. Just over a week ago, Britain’s most prominent vlogger Zoella was criticised for tweets (sent between 2010 and 2012) in which she mocked “fat chavs”, “tramps” and gay men.

Each of these figures was exposed in the same way. Twitter users who search a person’s handle alongside an offensive word can instantaneously see whether that person has ever said it. “In a way it’s not too different from investigative journalism,” says Dr Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking. Balick explains that a decade ago, the motivation to shame someone for their past would have to be combined with the effort of hiring a private detective or looking through their rubbish. "Technology and social media lower the bar for everything. They mean that somebody could’ve made a slip ten years ago that could be found by just about anybody with an internet connection.”

More often than not, these mini-investigations produce results. The fact many people have used social media since adolescence combined with the fact social consciousness has developed greatly since the Noughties means most people have posted one thing in the past that wouldn’t look good today (as a test, go to your Facebook Activity Log and search a taboo word or phrase).

I lied in my first sentence. Four people have actually been disgraced because of their old tweets in the last week. On the same day Zoella apologised for her offensive posts, the newly-appointed Gay Times editor Josh Rivers was suspended for tweets he sent between 2010 and 2015. In them, he expressed disdain for “chavs” and homeless people, and made multiple anti-semitic remarks. Similarly, Labour MP and women and equalities committee member Jared O’Mara was suspended last month for homophobic and misogynistic comments he had posted online between 2002 and 2004. Searching through people’s online histories has therefore played an important role in exposing prominent figures who are not suited for their professional roles.

Yet just because this phenomenon – which I will tentatively call the “search and shame” – has value, does not mean it can’t be troublesome. Balick explains that traditionally shame ensures people adhere to social conventions, but social media shaming is different. “Often the first consequence is to get the story out there for one’s own edification… If you know you’re going to get lots of likes and retweets, the fact that the person [being shamed] might find out and feel shame from that becomes secondary.” When someone “deserves” it, public shaming doesn’t seem too troublesome – but does someone who was offensive online 10 years ago deserve to be shamed now?

Arguably, this epidemic of headline-grabbing public shaming makes no room for context, sentiment, or personal growth. Often it does not distinguish between a man expressing clearly hate-filled opinions about an entire group of people (“The creepiest gay men are short, old asian men with long nails,” – Josh Rivers, 7 January 2011) and a boy using slurs to argue with one person online (“YOU RETARDED FAGGOT,” – Jack Maynard, 28 December 2012).

That is not to say that Jack Maynard wasn’t wrong. His use of multiple slurs (faggot, retard, and n*gga) is clearly disgusting, racist, shocking, and morally indefensible. Had he said those things today, he would undeniably be deserving of outcry and shame. But should he be punished for things he said when he was 16? As Stormzy said in his apology posted to (yep) Twitter: “I said some foul and offensive things whilst tweeting years ago at a time when I was young and proudly ignorant. Very hurtful and discriminative views that I’ve unlearned as I’ve grown up and become a man.” Is it right to shame people for things they did in their teens, ignoring any subsequent personal growth? Each of these stars has ostensibly changed (there is no evidence any of them have used these slurs in the last five years). 

Zoella was 21 when she called an X-Factor contestant “that fat chav”, should she have known better? Those who think age can exonerate foul tweeters probably don’t extend the excuse to 21-year-olds, even though scientists say the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. Yet placing an arbitrary age-limit on when it’s acceptable to be offensive (be it 16, 21, or 25) also leaves no room for context.

The “search and shame” phenomenon punishes individuals for our past collective evils. Zoella is punished for being fatphobic despite the fact she was writing at a time when the British media was consistently demonising people in programmes such as Supersize vs. Superskinny and Fat Families. Stormzy has now become a scapegoat for the fact that we, as a society, once used the word “gay” to mean “lame”. Disgusting examples of ableism, classism and blackface were still being aired by the BBC, in the form of Little Britain, at the time when Jack Maynard wrote his tweets. This doesn’t exonerate any of these individuals for their tweets – but it does question whether it is really that useful to punish them, as individuals, for the past wrongdoings of society as a whole.

The very progress which allows us to collectively see that the “comedy of contempt” rife in the Noughties was wrong is now being used to demonise those who aren’t savvy enough to delete their social media history. These individuals become scapegoats for society’s wrongs. This makes it even more dystopian and strange that everything we’ve ever posted can be recorded for all time, as the people who will be punished aren't the worst transgressors, but are simply the less digitally savvy. 

Many may feel that shaming is the least vile tweeters deserve. Yet bringing up age and context is not an attempt to excuse or justify this behaviour – which is clearly wrong and has often been damaging to many – it is an attempt to question whether the punishment fits the crime. Even without economic or professional repercussions, Balick explains that public shaming can still be incredibly damaging. 

“It’s a huge deal. Human beings are very, very sensitive to shame and humiliation,” he says. “It’s like one of our emotional trapdoors. You can be very highly psychologically evolved and somebody can send a withering tweet and it can have you down for days.”

This article isn't really about Stormzy and Zoella and whether they deserve to be punished for the things they did in the past. It is about today's children, who are growing up in a world where they could be held accountable for anything and everything they've ever said online. Balick say it is important to educate youngsters, but this is often difficult due to the way adolescent brains are wired. “If you're talking to a 12 or 13 year old, they've got another 10 years before [their brain has fully developed so that] they can withold an impulsive statement,” he says. He says the answer may lie in changing social networks themselves. 

“What we can't change is our basic psychological make-up, the will to shame and be shamed is always going to be there. But we've created social networks that really enable this in a pretty hardcore way, so developers might want to work with psychologists to see how they can develop their social networks to be more amenable to a psychological environment, which I think they're not.”

As for “search and shame”, it seems unlikely the phenomenon has hit its peak. It is the easiest and fastest way to take down a public figure in perhaps the whole of human history, and as such it will remain irresistible for many. 

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.