Opinion: A Call to End Online Shaming

THE INTERNET IS the most powerful communication tool ever invented. With a single button press, we can share our thoughts with thousands, sometimes millions of other people.

In the immortal words of Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Public shaming, mockery and humiliation have long been staples of internet discourse and “journalism”. Just today, I found multiple fresh examples on my Facebook feed; from Twitter users and “journalists” shaming a presenter for what she wore while presenting the Olympics, to people shaming a woman for wearing a bikini and a court ordered monitor bracelet.

The internet gives individuals far more power to disseminate their views. It gives anyone who would care to use it a megaphone to shame others which can cross continents. Why this happens is totally understandable. Not only is shaming a way of exercising social control, a way to deter others from engaging in behaviour we view as unacceptable, but it can be entertaining. Audiences love to see the powerful humiliated and brought low, and sometimes they wish to laugh at the misfortunes they see as having committed some moral wrong. I understand; gossip and mockery can be fun, it’s a part of how people bond as groups and entertain each other and can serve a social function, but I think we need to consider how our entertainment and amusement can impact others.

Make no mistake; being shamed on the internet can totally ruin someone’s life. It can close down a business, it can get people fired or, in the case of Taiwanese model Heidi Yeh, it can render someone unemployable due to what turned out to be an urban myth. Jon Ronson, in his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” does an excellent job of demonstrating the harm that public callouts, mockery and shaming can do to a person.

Part of this is harassment, which, one could argue, is just the price anyone pays for becoming known on the internet. However, this does not make harassment acceptable, nor does it mean that we are not all responsible for reducing it whenever possible. As such I would argue that because we know that harassment tends to happen, we should not take actions, such as shaming or posting video of someone, unless we know that that person is OK with it, which could be seen as basic politeness anyway.

Don’t trick yourself into believing that this only happens when a shaming or meme goes viral. This is not solely the domain of celebrities or people with millions of followers on Twitter. Even local online spaces, like YikYak, or smaller spaces like a YouTube comments section, can make a person feel under siege and humiliated, and have a real impact on their ability to socialize or even study.

The easy response to this is for them to toughen up; that people should be less sensitive. In my view, this is absolute nonsense for a number of reasons.

Firstly: as people who hopefully want to do good in the world, and avoid making the world a worse place, we should avoid actions that may upset people, regardless of any imaginary standard of toughness they should meet. A compassionate person should recognise that not everyone can, or should, be an unfeeling monolith all the time and so do what they can to make sure that their actions don’t force anyone to either become tough, or be hurt.

Even if “toughening up” was always possible, it still wouldn’t matter. We need to take people as we find them. By way of illustration; there is a legal notion called “The Thin Skull Rule”. This means that even if you take an action that would, on most people, only cause a little harm, but that person has some condition or vulnerability – for example, a genetic condition that means they have an unusually thin skull – then you can be held responsible for all of the consequences. We cant act  and expect to only deal with the consequences that we would expect had the person we acted on been “normal”. Just as we cant go around hitting people on the head and expecting people to have thick skulls, we can’t go around humiliating, mocking and shaming people and expecting the victims to be as durable as we demand they be.

The notion that people should “just turn off the computer” in this day and age is also absurd. More and more jobs require an online presence, and almost everyone relies on social networks to communicate with their friends and have a social life. The internet is a vital part of modern life, and requiring that someone disconnect themselves from that to avoid abuse is awful, especially when it would be much easier for people to not engage in harassment, abuse, shaming and mockery in the first place.

Shaming can perform a valid social function. Many minority and activists use it as a way of highlighting harmful behaviour, a practice often called “calling out”. As useful as it may be, and as entertaining as mockery can be, I think we owe it to ourselves, our community and our culture to examine less harmful alternatives.

I don’t claim to be some sort of online guru; I upset my share of people online, and get into more pointless arguments than I would like. However, I think there are a few things we can do to avoid shaming, and the harmful effects thereof.

  1. Just… don’t. A lot of comments I see are utterly meaningless abuse, it should go without saying, but if you ever feel the urge to leave a comment like this, just don’t. It wont teach anyone anything, it adds nothing to the discourse, and as much as you may like venting your anger, screaming into a pillow or going for a jog are alternatives which hurt no one.
  2. Attack ideas, not people. When I see an article where someone has acted in a way I feel should be called out, I don’t talk about them personally, I talk about the issues their conduct raises. This helps remove the personally damaging effects of shaming, and allows us just to talk about the issues at hand.
  3. Sharing isn’t always caring. If you see a shaming article on your Facebook or wherever, consider not sharing it, no matter how outrageous the conduct of the person featured is. Just let things die down a bit, your eagerness to share this outrageous thing with your friends may be adding fuel to the fire. Consider what your share really adds to the discourse, and if it is really necessary.
  4. Reconsider mockery. You may find a comment or post mocking someone funny, but it may be worthwhile to think before posting: is this worth seriously upsetting or even harming someone. Odds are it wont be. If what you have to post is a politically valuable piece of satire, remember, good satire punches up, not down.
  5. Remember, character is who you are when no one is watching. Yes, you may be able to be nasty to someone on an anonymous board without any consequences to you. But remember, someone can still be hurt by these messages, and you are still responsible. Even in situations where there is no one to judge you but yourself, you are still responsible for being the person you want to be. You could be nasty, but do you want to be the sort of person who is nasty? The choice is yours.

This is a reminder that we are responsible for our actions online, and that we may want to reconsider our actions when they may hurt people or create a toxic culture. This is about everyone, as an individual, being responsible for making our online spaces better. This is our responsibility as individuals, regardless of the policies of any sites we choose to use. We are responsible for the ecosystems our words create.

The largest change can start with the smallest action, by refusing to take part in shame-culture and public humiliations we can not only prove our character and values as individuals, but also help improve our online communities.