From public shaming to public compassion

The public discussion about “online reputation” has gotten darker, as “public shaming” appears in more and more headlines. We may think it’s tough to be a celebrity, having everything one does – good, bad or anything in between – go viral. But it’s even tougher not to be, if you post something negative online. Because when you’re not a celebrity, it seems only bad stuff goes viral, not just every little thing you do. A stupid joke, a callous remark, a cranky critical comment gets posted, and the non-celebrity can suddenly find him or herself judged by thousands or (depending on how outrageous the post’s seen to be by his/her new “public”) by millions. The public has no context, and so somehow you’re defined – either intentionally by someone who has it in for you or by a public seeking entertainment on a slow news day – by something bad you mindlessly or angrily said.

Not that this new set of conditions excuses callous or casually cruel remarks made online. But if jobs are lost, depression or self-harm happens, reputations are destroyed and the safety of the commenter and his or her family and friends is threatened – all of which has happened to people – it is at least legitimate to ask if the punishment fits the “crime.” That’s an important question raised in a book excerpt about public shaming in this week’s New York Times Magazine. It leads with the story of how a p.r. executive with a Twitter following of just 170 people became a global celebrity while she was on an international flight. That a racist comment, whether reportedly a joke or not, could be posted publicly and by a p.r. professional on the way to South Africa is astonishing, but so was the scale of the collective response.

Our humanity, not our technology

Since what happens in social media is much more about our humanity than our technology, we really need to think together about the punishment humanity is now capable of meting out.

Public humiliation as public spectacle is as old as humanity. A clever Times Magazine editor headlined the article “Feed Frenzy,” but it trivializes the fact that public shaming in newsfeeds has a potential reach and distribution speed never before seen by the human race. Even historically, though, being in the crowd was more than a spectacle – more than merely a witnessing – because the crowd, the public part of the shaming, was what created the shame. Now, even as the number of potential witnesses has grown exponentially, so has the ease of participation and harm.

“Harassment as a whole, and the way in which it impacts individuals, fundamentally changes the arc of people’s lives. Economically, socially and politically,” author and law professor Danielle Citron told writer Soraya Chemaly in a interview.

Who’s being degraded?

Collectively, we haven’t thought enough – much less taught our children – about who’s being degraded and harmed. In crowd-sourced media, the crowd, the media and the community are degraded and harmed too.

Because these digital spaces are available to everyone, are shared and social on a global scale, we are all hurt by public shaming. Ultimately and contrary to what some shamers seem to think, there is nothing to be gained in watching another person being hurt. In fact, there’s research showing that just observing social cruelty takes a psychological toll.

“Bystanders are significantly affected by the bullying they witness or hear about, so much so that they may be at an increased risk of self-harming behavior,” wrote Prof. Ian Rivers at Brunel University in the UK. He and his fellow researchers found higher rates of depression, substance abuse and anxiety among students who had witnessed bullying. “The single most significant predictor of suicide risk among bystanders was found to be powerlessness [emphasis his].”

See it for what it is

So the need to address digital public shaming is getting more urgent. People are getting hurt. Second chances are going away. We can’t afford to let our children grow up believing online harassment and public humiliation are just the way things are. Knowledge is power, so here are some things to remember:

  • The old-fashioned word is “ignominy”: It was used by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, in a 1787 paper calling for its end, according to the Times Magazine article, but “pillory and whippings weren’t abolished at the federal level until 1839.” One of its definitions is “public contempt.” It takes away people’s dignity, marginalizes and dehumanizes people. One of its antidotes is emotional intelligence. “We need to teach [our kids] how to be socially competent in a very complex world,” said author Rosalind Wiseman in a talk about raising boys. “Abuse of power is inevitable, so it’s our job to teach them social competency, to teach them that people’s dignity is not negotiable, for them or for anyone.”
  • There are invisible publics: Social media researcher danah boyd famously wrote about these in her 2008 PhD dissertation – that people and groups you never even thought of can instantly become your “public” or audience online (more here).
  • Contexts melt into each other online. The academic term is “context collapse,” and it was also central to boyd’s dissertation. It means your public or interest group or community can quickly mash up with an entirely different one, both finding themselves oddly thrown together in the same context, where they’d never find themselves together offline.
  • Snap judgment without context can create a lot of trouble out of what you post, when combined with people’s ability to instantly repost, retweet, forward, twist and share it with…
  • Instant mass distribution making it go viral and turning snap judgment into viral snap judgment and invisible publics into massive invisible publics.
  • If public shaming happens to you or your child, do not take your appeal to the court of public opinion. A dad did that on YouTube after his daughter was bullied, and then things really went south for him and everybody, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. Remember that all the above holds true. Snap judgment, no context, etc., etc. can turn victims into perpetrators in the contextless public mind, and vice versa. Seeking sympathy or retribution in social media can backfire horribly.

Rule No. 1 for empathy in social media

Maybe public forgiveness will eclipse public shaming. But until we get there, we need to be completely clear and to teach our children that those are fellow human beings with feelings and lives behind those tweets, posts, texts, comments and images. That’s Rule No. 1.

“Inability to see a face is, in the most direct way, inability to recognize shared humanity with another,” according to a Valentine’s Day essay in the New York Times. [This is why Facebook has been working with “compassion researchers” on how to create empathy in digital spaces where we don’t have facial expression to enable it (see Pacific Standard Magazine for more).]

Two more basic rules of the road

“A world stripped of faces is a world stripped, not merely of ethics, but of the biological and cultural foundations of ethics,” continues Stephen Marche, the Times essay’s writer. “We need a new art of conversation for the new conversations we are having.”

So Marche offers two simple rules for overcoming facelessness. Besides Rule No. 1 about always seeing human beings behind texts, tweets and posts, these might help us and our children grow resilience and civility, see public shaming for what it is and help reduce its impact: “Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face” and “Don’t listen to what people wouldn’t say to your face.”

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[Sidebar:] A few further thoughts for parents & educators

The flipside of that disempowerment is to empower our children (and all social media users) with knowledge, agency and literacy – knowledge of what public shaming is and does, agency for doing something about it (sometimes that’s comforting a target publicly or anonymously, sometimes it’s counter speech or countering the cruelty) and literacy for taking intelligent action (with media and social-emotional skills).

Avoidance doesn’t get our children to that empowerment. Parents may want to be aware that not only does banning social media hamper resilience and skill development, it can increase the risk of social marginalization for children whose social circles are in social media. Better to know what’s going on in the peer group and learn how to navigate the digital parts of social life as well as the in-person parts. Just like adults, a child can develop “FOMO” (fear of missing out) with or without social media, but there can be more acute FOMO outside of the social fray. According to researcher Stan Davis, co-author of the Youth Voice Project “isolation and ostracism is the core wound in peer mistreatment.”

None of this is to say there’s greater risk of social cruelty online than offline. It just has much greater exposure. Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab wrote, “The internet creates an environment where we are aware of speech we otherwise wouldn’t hear.” We have data showing that bullying is no worse online. In fact, it’s worse offline. The Centers for Disease Control published research last June showing that 19.6% of high school students had experienced bullying on school grounds in the past year vs. 14.8% who’d experienced it online. But the digital versions of harassment and bullying are what we’re seeing in the news. So it’s just as possible that we’re collectively reacting to the greater exposure of negative behaviors as to increased negativity. What that means for parents is a greater than ever need to ask our kids about any negativity they’re personally experiencing (and possibly participating in) online and respond to that rather than extrapolate from headlines what their experiences are.

Because your children’s and everybody’s experiences in social media are very individual – they have everything to do with who they are, who their friends are, how they behave there, and how everybody relates to one another offline as well as online.