Social Media isn’t just sunshine and rainbows. It isn’t just sharing photos and looking at cool cooking videos shot from overhead; sometimes, social media and the Internet in general can hurt people. Going all the way back to the 1990s and even as recent as a few weeks ago, there are several potent examples of how social media and people across the Internet have ruined the lives of individuals.
The first case I want to look at is one that I remember seeing as it unfolded around me. Justine Sacco is the ex-senior director of corporate communications at IAC (a media and internet company) who became the center of an internet witch hunt after she posted a polarizing tweet to her 170 followers before getting on a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa.
The response was immediate. As soon as she landed and looked at her phone, she was trending on Twitter, her company had tweeted about her, she had basically become a public icon without even knowing about it. Someone even came to the airport to see her land in order to respond to the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.
The reason this case is the one that I want to touch on first is because it was the first time I remember a normal person blowing up in this way. Someone who seemed so… common (not in a bad way) basically became a celebrity for something as simple as a tweet. Do I think the tweet was in poor taste? Yes, absolutely. But do I think that it caused her to become, for a day or a week even, the most hated woman in America? Not really.
The next case I wanted to cover was one that my parents actually remember, and by remember I mean that they were paying attention with both eyes open as it literally unfolded around them. That is the case of Monica Lewinsky.
While the initial incident itself was noteworthy with all the backlash it drew towards Lewinsky, I want to comment mostly on her TED Talk and how she prepared for that.
While I was reading the article, one of the biggest comments that stuck out to me was this one: “Feminists who had stayed silent on the first go-round were suddenly defending her, using terms like ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘media gender bias’ to do it.” That was something I never actually thought about, how some of the people who stand by Lewinsky now were the people who tore her down or stayed silent during her initial thrust into the media spotlight. It made me kind of… sad? I honestly felt bad for her, which I had never done before in all the years I knew her story.
More recently, the last story I want to touch on is about John Higgins, a referee who incited the wrath of Kentucky fans after making some ‘bad calls’ during a NCAA Tournament game. The instance I want to touch on is how the Kentucky fans found and subsequently destroyed his companies Facebook page, resulting in Higgins being forced to remove the page in its entirety. Not only that, according to ESPN, fans “found his home phone number and it has been “ringing off the hook.” People on the other end of the line have been calling in with death threats towards Higgins, causing him to be panicked over the whole ordeal.” While the coach of Kentucky came out and indirectly tweeted about the ordeal, it did little to reverse the damage that had already occurred around Higgin’s feet.
All of this begs the question, what does public shaming mean for social media in general? Does it reward people for being horrible, or is it possible for the entire span of content to get more positive? The authors of the stories I touched on earlier had many good points about this, points that made me think about these situations more. The first one came from the author of the Justine Sacco story, Jon Ronson, who talked about how these public shaming campaigns have become much more prevalent it seems like in the recent past. He wrote:
“As time passed, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive… It almost felt as if shaming were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.”
Social media as a whole is built, at least in some aspect, on public shaming. This is because, as Ronson says, “Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval.” People love to see other people fail, and as horrible as that sounds, basically anyone can relate to this. Remember that show America’s Funniest Home Videos? You can’t tell me you didn’t laugh every time someone faceplanted into a tree or fell off a chair, no matter how embarrassing the situation was for the individual in the video. Web sites and social media take that feeling and twist it into a different type of ‘laughter’. To quote Jessica Bennett, the author of the New York Times piece about Monica Lewinsky, “…shame and humiliation have become a kind of ‘commodity’ in our culture- with websites that thrive on it, industries created out of it, and people who get paid to clean up the mess.”
Do I think social media needs to become a more compassionate place? Yes. Do I think it will happen? That’s a completely different issue. With how much people love to watch these types of situations unfold around them over Twitter and the like, I don’t think that they will ever really stop. They should, especially because these types of things can have lasting negative effects on the individuals who, most of the time, just made a simple ill-timed mistake ( a great example is Lewinsky who still suffers from PTSD from various aspects of the Clinton scandal or how Sacco couldn’t get a new job for so long after her ordeal, only to get critized yet again when she finally did.)
Public shaming is not a good part of the social media culture. However, as much as it pains me to admit it, it is very much a part of that culture, and I don’t know how much we can do as a society to change that. I don’t think there is a person on the internet who didn’t wish, at least in some part, that public shaming would go away, but because of how popular the fall out usually is, I doubt it ever will.