The role of public shaming in the digital world

A common saying in our modern era is that cases such as police brutality, bullying, human rights abuses and evidence of corruption have not increased. What has happened instead is that there are now mediums that expose injustices that continue to plague the world. This shift to a more connected world has come with both good and bad, but what we continue to study is that the bad is has dire consequences. One such case that we explore here is online shaming.

Definition

Online shaming has different meanings, but it is primarily considered a form of vigilantism taking place on the internet. It typically uses social media and other types to humiliate an individual or more people publicly. In the case of online shaming, those on the platforms issue what they deem to be justice toward someone they considered to have deviant behavior. The result of this type of mobbing in that the intention is to ruin someone’s reputation or that of a company.

As a result, livelihoods are usually lost, and getting a job becomes near impossible as they try to get back on their feet. It is not uncommon for the bullying to intensify to a point where the person undergoing persecution is threatened with bodily harm. Overall, a person’s privacy is stripped away and is unable to remain anonymous and go about their daily life. Furthermore, online shaming often involves the sharing of a person’s private information by the person or people dishing out their version of justice.

Further context

Upon closer inspection, those subject to online shaming are deemed to be modern-day witches and are put on the online stake for persecution. The effects of the abuse are not just felt by the victim but by those around them as well. When you look at the examples that currently exist on online shaming, the reality is that the effects are long-lasting and can follow a person for the rest of their life. 

What remains alarming is that people hardly double-check the information or show empathy towards someone who has made a mistake. A person typically circulates information about the victim and attracts like-minded people to participate in the shaming. However, other ways a person can experience online shaming exist. People have posted videos on their platforms can become victims of online shaming when it circulates to those outside their circle.

In the digital age, one present aspect is how the public, online forums, and media outlets feed each other information. It is then hardly surprising when we see social media images or videos that have gone viral being picked up as part of the news item. Though their names typically identify the people involved, it has become increasingly common for people to be referred to by a nickname that someone coined and caught on. They are catchy and describe who the person was and what they did in two words or more.

When the public steps in

Shame is considered to be a tool that brings about behavior and thought modification. A person can feel within without prompting from another person, or it can be through external voices. It is simply a way to “put someone back in line” after they do something they or other perceived to be against the social norms. While in this definition it sounds like a handy tool to maintain social order, the effect of the same on a person emotions state is adverse. 

Online shaming happens under the guise of shaming someone from deviating. It is considered as a way to teach someone a lesson, whether a person was falsely accused or did wrong. In some cases, it does provide a way to teach and reinforce social values. It is the case when a parent tells their child “shame on you” for playing catch with pre cooked chicken wings defrosting on a counter. Here a child learns that they cannot do as they please, and they adjust their behavior.

Carrying on with the example, should a parent post a photo of what their child is doing followed by the verbal warning, things can quickly take a dark turn. In a context where you have close friends on the platform, they are likely to sympathize with the parent’s plight. They could perhaps even laugh at how naughty the child has been.

In a world where internet trolling, should the parent expose the video to a wider net of people, they are likely to get unsolicited comments. These comments are typically offensive or even unrelated to what is happening but bring about a strong emotional reaction. Trolls, the people leaving these comments, often do so for amusement purposes or to prove a point. Should the video get more views and from more strangers, the parent is likely to experience public online shaming. The theme would likely center around bad parenting either for having a child who wastes food or from the verbal warning.

The thing about public shaming is it takes a world of its own because everyone has something to say. In this case, a vegan might step in and give arguments that the parent is overall a human being. If the t-shirt the child is wearing has an innocent image, someone might choose to post a conspiracy theory and brand the parents as extremists. Other aspects need not make sense, but the message to the parent is clear: you are in the wrong.

What happens to victims of public shaming?

The impact of online shaming is evident. The verbal abuse and mockery usually spill outside the platform and into the physical world. Personal information is shared. People gain access to a person’s number, where they work or their home address and continue the attack. Threats get issues and are either targeting a person’s livelihood or their life. In such cases, a person gets fired due to pressure from the public and to avoid the wrath that can potentially bring damage to the company. The spiral continues.

Friends and family are not left out of it. They too can begin to get attacked due to their association with the victim. It becomes evident that the level of “punishment” dished out is not proportional to the original offense, actual or perceived. Destroying a person’s life for being termed socially deviant is at the very least extreme. Equally, there are a lot of cases of mistaken identity where there is unnecessary disruption of a person’s life. Suicide has also been a result of online shaming.

One can argue that a person’s free speech and right to privacy gets taken away in the event of online shaming. A person can no longer peacefully engage in online activities without the fear of getting attacked. They equally cannot navigate public spaces without having unpleasant interactions with others familiar with what story. Humiliation is the tool of online shaming, with the comments, jokes and sarcastic remarks acting as verbal flogging. Though this a person gets stripped of their pride and even dignity. The primary purpose is to make someone feel ashamed or foolish for what they did or did not do.

The normalization of online shaming

There continue to be cases of public shaming. Researchers on the topic offer various theories to aid us in understanding why they are rampant. One argument is that people participating in public shaming consider this their version of politics. Their inability to understand, trust and participate in it leaves them powerless. Engaging in public shaming is their way of righting a wrong where politics and justice have failed to do in their lives and of those around them.  

What happens on the subconscious level of people’s minds is that they find satisfaction in seeing someone paying the price for something they did. One can assume that a significant percentage of those who deem their actions towards a victim as warranted will, however, state they were merely doing their right thing. Those defending their efforts will turn to the classicargument of “free speech” or that they were taking the moral high ground and educating the person.

Another party that plays a role in exacerbating cases of online shaming and bullying are social platforms. When a story is trending, the company gets more clicks leading to more revenue. With such incentives, they will find little reason to stop or lessen the cases of online shaming. In light of this, platforms ought to step forward and protect users even when free speech cannot get entirely ignored.

The law can also play a part, but the sheer number of people around the world that can play a role in public shaming makes it near impossible to act. In extreme cases, one can sue for hate speech, defamation, infringement on one’s privacy and other claims of where a person’s legal rights get violated. The justice system ought to be able to step in severe cases. If a plaintiff wins, that may signal to those engaged in public shaming to rethink their strategy. However, we are yet to see situations where that has been successful. Anonymity equally does not help the cause.

Why one should not engage in online shaming

A notable aspect of all cases of public shaming is that the behaviors are not new. It is likely that the same comments or actions done, perceived or actual, happen with others on a large scale. The difference is that someone captured the moment or someone started a rumor. In all cases, public shaming does carry with it an element of misinformation.

Therefore, before stepping out to join a mob attacking a person online for their comments, one should ensure they have the facts. Even when armed with facts, an attack is still not warranted. Instead, a person ought to choose empathy; everyone makes mistakes. Encouraging understanding can play a massive part in changing this toxic culture.

Social media and other organizations involved in anti-bullying efforts ought to put in place campaigns that sensitize people on the effects of public shaming. It should also include an element of policing where we become better global citizens through reporting comments that border on the extreme. The platforms where shaming is rampant should also work toward changing their policies to diminish the impact.

As the cases continue to happen, there needs to be a shift in the public consciousness. Digital media has transformed our lives and using it to destroy another based on a transgression or rumor ought not to be one of its uses. The fight to end this should not be left to a few but should be a combined effort. Organizations do not get exempted from public online shaming. They would thus do well to support anti-online bullying campaigns but remain strategic about the approach.

Author: Eddy

Eddy is the editorial columnist in Business Fundas, and oversees partner relationships. He posts articles of partners on various topics related to strategy, marketing, supply chain, technology management, social media, e-business, finance, economics and operations management. The articles posted are copyrighted under a Creative Commons unported license 4.0. To contact him, please direct your emails to editor.webposts@gmail.com.