Flickr user: John Loo
Show Hide image

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: mdl70 via Flickr
Show Hide image

Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.