Have you ever shamed a stranger on Twitter for a laugh, or maybe been on the receiving end of online public humiliation? If the answer is yes, you’re certainly not alone, and it’s a serious cause for concern.
Words: Jas Rawlinson
In a strange way, public humiliation has gone full circle; re-emerging through social media after having been banned from Colonial America in the 1830s. We look to countries still practicing public humiliation, such as India, and we express our indignation at a society so barbaric – yet social media has made public humiliation a worldwide indulgence.
Welsh Author, Journalist and Filmmaker Jon Ronson (The Men who Stare at Goats / The Psychopath Test/ So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) believes that social media has lead to an ugly uprise of misguided power, where many can no longer distinguish between social justice issues and public shaming. What originally started as a platform to seek social justice and cultural change, has become something entirely different.
“Social media started wonderfully, and of course it is still wonderful in many ways…but I think we fell in love so much with [going after] people who were misusing their privilege, that a day without shaming started to feel like a day of picking fingernails or treading water,” explained Ronson at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in September. “It began to feel weird and empty when there wasn’t someone we could ‘get’.
In recent months, we’ve seen this ‘Lord of the Flies’ mentality play out first hand in the AshleyMadison scandal, and the killing of Cecil the Lion. While the actions of those at the centre of both circumstances were certainly deserving of discussion, the way the internet rose to destroy the lives of those involved – and anyone who called for reason – was terrifyingly swift. In a matter of days careers were destroyed, innocent family members were publicly humiliated, and death threats were sent without a second thought. Three people committed suicide as a result of the cheating hack.
“It’s as if we would rather that people kill themselves than for us to be bored for a day on social media,” points out Ronson. When I asked if he thought people found it hard to distinguish between expressing an opinion and shaming, he agreed that this was a common curiosity. “You always know though,” he stressed. “You know when you’re shaming [and targeting].”
While issues such as animal cruelty and infidelity will always elicit strong emotion, many times people are shamed online for nothing more than making a poorly phrased joke, daring to leave the house without makeup, or simply standing up for the rights of others. A recent example of this was the trolling of Women’s Rights Organisation ‘Collective Shout,’ who earlier this year asked the Australian government to deny entry to Tyler The Creator, a rapper known for his graphic lyrical descriptions of raping, murdering and abusing women.
When thousands of Australians voiced their concerns over the rapper playing all-ages shows in Australia (in light of past abusive behaviour toward Australian women in 2013), Tyler and his fans unleashed an onslaught of abuse in an attempt to silence anyone who dared speak out against his behaviour. Tweeting out a lie to his 2.5million followers, Tyler singled out a young woman and wrongfully told his fans that she had ‘banned’ him from Australia. That woman was Collective Shout’s Director of Operations Coralie Alison, who over the next 48 hours, received more than 2000 threats of rape and murder. One fan hunted her down on other social media platforms, and called for her to be ‘destroyed’. Meanwhile, another woman had her account hacked and her personal phone number released to the world; all because she had dared discuss violence against women. Unsurprisingly, no one threatened the lives of the trolls advocating for these women to be raped.
Speaking about this mentality, Ronson explained that as a society we are “finding it impossible to distinguish serious and non serious transgressions,” and are creating a society of cold, hard judgement where damaged people are made into playthings.
“[As humans] we are clever and stupid…but we’re creating a surveillant society [where] the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless,” he noted sadly. “Let’s try not to do that.”
So next time you get ready to hit ‘’share’’ on someone’s photo for your own entertainment, ask yourself: “Could there be more to this than I know? Would I feel differently if it were me being shamed?” If yes, put down your phone, step away from the computer, and re-evaluate.