Shaming and the modern Pillory

“We’ve given the word ‘mob’ a bad name”, says Dr Hibbert sadly in one of the Simpsons’ episodes. It’s knowing irony, because the type of mob in which he is participating – armed with pitchforks and burning stakes – is a throwback to medieval times and the worst of group-think and public shaming. We don’t have those angry mobs anymore, randomly imposing vigilante justice on their neighbours, and when we do, the police intervene.

But the human tendency for public shaming and victimisation goes on. We do that now – as we do many things – on social media. And when that victimization happens, it can be devastating for the individual involved, and totally out of proportion to their ‘crime’.

Many people who use social media do not see themselves as modern equivalents of the lynch mob. On the contrary, they see themselves as doing good. Nonetheless, their actions can have profound effects – not just on their victims, but on themselves.

There have been many cases of people posting unwise or inappropriate comments on Twitter, for example, and suffering extreme consequences. Justine Sacco is merely one of those and you can read her story here, but there are many.

Recently, in Ireland, a man was named and shamed on Facebook and Twitter because he dumped three kittens by the side of the road. Of course, that’s a cruel and irresponsible thing to do, but the level of vitriol and abuse he received online for his ‘crime’ was out of proportion to what he had done.

The chances of such a person being caught in the act by the Gardaí is poor, and the chances of such a person ultimately receiving a conviction for cruelty are equally low, but rightly or wrongly, we have set up the Gardaí to investigate crime and the Courts system to punish people who break the law.

No-one has appointed anyone as ‘Shamer-in-Chief’, and no-one has the right to assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. And yet, it happens all the time.

Individuals, brands and companies have yet to realise how devastating it can be to be targeted on social media. In the case of Justine Sacco, she lost her job and found it very difficult to find another one. What had she done? While hanging around an airport in London on her way to South Africa she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.”

She had been in a jokey mood. Earlier she had tweeted “Chilly – cucumber sandwiches – bad teeth. Back in London!”

So she wasn’t at her sensitive best and, bored, she made a couple of bad and somewhat offensive jokes. But the reaction to her misdemeanor was global and, for her, life-changing.

Sacco only had 170 followers to offend, but then she got on an 11-hour flight to Cape Town. By the time she got there and turned on her phone, she was getting calls and texts from people she hadn’t spoken to in years and she was the number one Global trend on Twitter.

As her plane made its way to Cape Town, the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet started trending and when she arrived a Twitter user had gone to the airport to take a picture of her arriving and, naturally, posted it on Twitter. And then her life became hell. Reporters trawled her Twitter account for other possible offences and photographers followed her to her gym.

In the end, she was fired from her job and given the publicity surrounding her firing, she found it very difficult to get another one. It’s an extreme punishment for a few seconds mis-judgement. And it’s especially questionable when it’s administered by a mob, rather than any process of law, or even corporate regulations.

Of course, another phenomenon of the Internet is that we voluntarily provide information. This allows corporations and governments to get us to do their work for them. Banks have been cutting staff for decades as more and more of us do our own banking online and this practice has spread into a whole range of human endeavor. You can’t buy a book or a record without the online retailer offering you another similar product. They do that based on the information you have willingly (or sometimes, not so willingly) provided.

In Singapore this has led to an online portal, STOMP, which allows user to send in photographs of fellow citizens mis-behaving. It’s the Internet equivalent of the ‘Valley of the Squinting Windows’ and users send in everything from minor offences (people putting their feet on seats on a public bus) to foreign workers passed out on the street after a drinking binge.

In turn, this allows for a lot of racist comment, indeed, encourages it. Such as: “So much garbage in this once clean country”. The picture might be worth a thousand words, but the words contextualise and explain. Nobody is as bad as their worst moment. Indeed, how many of us would be able to explain that one time when we acted badly if it were broadcast to the whole world?

We are programmed to empathise and we do that through looking at people’s faces. We can detect grief, pain, suffering and hurt and generally, we react to people based on their emotions.

But the Internet is faceless, and while a photograph may represent what a person looks like at any one time, a smiling face in a Twitter profile does not necessarily indicate that the person represented in that avatar is smiling at this moment in time. It can be all to easy to see that person as unrepentant and worthy of shaming and suffering.

There is a reason why we don’t allow members of the public to hand out sentences to criminals and why we employ professionals to do so. We are often caught up with our own emotions and in a split second, we can make a rush to judgement. We do it all too easily on the Net, and we need to question ourselves when we do so.

But individuals, brands and companies need to have a proactive approach to social media in order to ensure that they don’t become victims. There is no choice in this – you can’t simply opt out of the conversation. If you do, the trolls may get you…


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