A Darker Side to Digital Communications

“Entertaining content can go viral, but public shaming can also spread like wildfire, and suddenly it can feel like one person is at odds with the entire population of the internet.”

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More often than not, the discussions about social media and digital communications on this blog have been about their positive aspects: The newfound ease and speed of communications, the various ways companies/organizations can use these tools in a professional manner, etc. However, as with many other things in life, to only present these technological and societal “advancements” of communications in a positive light would paint an inaccurate picture. Entertaining content can go viral, but public shaming can also spread like wildfire, and suddenly it can feel like one person is at odds with the entire population of the internet. Indeed, the concept of public shaming heightened by social media and communication technology can leave repercussions on the receiver’s professional life, everyday interactions and in some cases, one’s own mortality.

One of the reasons why social media has made public shaming all the more relevant in today’s media environment is because of the platform it gives people. People have the ability to make their voices heard online, and depending on the social network and privacy settings, that voice can be heard by anyone in the world, for better or for worse. The New York Times ran an article detailing public shaming which talked about multiple stories of when people were able to hear one’s voice, but that voice was saying or doing something less-than-savvy. Examples include a woman posting a picture of herself making an obscene gesture in front of a cemetery; someone dressing up in parody of a recent tragedy for Halloween and posting a picture on social media; and the case that was most-discussed in the article, when a PR professional posted an insensitive joke about traveling to Africa on Twitter. All of the people in question had their social media content visible to the public, and the public took notice. Since social media conceptually gives everyone the same platform, others voiced their displeasure against these wrongdoings, which would cause even more people to take notice, and eventually, what started off as humor in poor taste became the subject of national discussion (in the case of the PR professional’s tweet about Africa, she became the top trending topic on Twitter). Moreover, this shaming didn’t stop at online ridicule, as each of these people were fired from their respective occupations after the stories of their misdeeds went viral.

However, this idea of public shaming gone viral isn’t limited to one’s own social media irresponsibility. The Times also mentioned a case when two men were making a sophomoric joke which was overheard by a female colleague who deemed the joke sexist. She then posted about their joke which sparked public outrage that led to the men getting fired from their jobs (as well as backlash towards the woman for reporting the incident). Outside of social media, referee John Higgins was profusely harassed on social media following a controversial call during the NCAA tournament. The shaming got to the point where Higgins had to delete his company’s Facebook page and seek legal enforcement amid death threats and having his phone number get discovered by fans. As a whole, these people did wrong (or at least something people deemed “wrong”), and with the advent of nearly instantaneous communications, saw a mob rise up against them and by some accounts, ruin their lives.

Interestingly enough, one victim of immense public shaming was able to climb from the ashes of embarrassment and lost credibility and now speaks about the prevalence of public shaming in our media consumption, that person being Monica Lewinsky. After news broke of her affair with President Bill Clinton, the subsequent shaming from the media and a couple of misguided attempts to capitalize on the publicity, Lewinsky took an extended hiatus from the public eye, only to return in the mid-2015’s, more matured and with a message to convey. In a TED Talk she presented in 2015 (and as described in a New York Times article written about her), Lewinsky discussed her experience with public shaming and the effects it had on her life. In addition to her own experience, Lewinsky brought up other statistics about public shaming and its commonality, as well as a tragedy from 2010 when a Rutgers student had a video of his sexual interactions get leaked to the internet, in which the cyber-bullying and turmoil eventually led to his suicide (on a personal note, this story reminded me of the suicide of Amanda Todd which I remember becoming a subject of discussion in my high school). Speaking as a survivor during her TED Talk, Lewinsky advocated a “return to a long-held value of compassion” and for anyone facing public humiliation, an encouragement that they can survive the ridicule like she did in 1998.

Unfortunately, the appeal for heightened compassion and empathy in media may be easier said than done. Labeling it a “blood sport,” Lewinsky also touched upon the profitability that comes with public and shaming and gossip. Regardless of whether we’d like to admit it, these stories gain attention, which can turn to ad revenue for websites reporting them. In that regard, it may appear that people are “rewarded” for tormenting somebody, regardless of the severity of the person’s initial act. Furthermore, even if people were to be more compassionate online, I fear that these websites and sources of media will still find stories to publish in order to generate attention and eventual profit. Times like these make me understand why some people avoid social media, altogether (a comment I saw on one of the Times articles said he/she deleted his/her Facebook account to avoid the risk of saying/doing something flippant and having people see it). Still, that’s not to say I’ve completely lost hope on the subject. While backlash is certainly inevitable and warranted in some cases, I feel like there needs to be better inspection and prevention of cases when criticism turns into full-blown harassment, and organizations like Trollbusters show efforts are being made. Finally, it’s with hope that media outlets will better “reward” the acts of kindness in the same way that acts of public shaming gain attention; showing the importance of journalism’s function to inform the pubic, and in today’s times, to inform the public that there’s still good happening in the world.

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