In December 2013, Justine Sacco, senior director of corporate communications of the Internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp (IAC), was travelling to South Africa for the holidays. An avid Twitter user and bored airline passenger, Justine entertained herself by tweeting quips about the annoyances of air travel. Some may have found her observations witty, if not a tad crass—but with only 170 Twitter followers, her social media reach was little more than a blip.
A half hour before boarding in London for the last leg of her trip, Sacco tweeted this: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
After wandering the airport and powering down her phone for takeoff, Sacco would spend the next 11 hours in a state of ignorant bliss as those 64 characters sparked, caught fire and blazed through international social media feeds. In those 11 hours, an online mob had formed to express their collective rage against Sacco, and her name became synonymous with racism, ignorance and the flaunting of white privilege. Before Sacco landed, IAC had all but announced her firing via Twitter. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet began to trend worldwide as people waited with communal glee for Sacco to land, turn on her phone and face her online flogging.
Sacco spent the next year of her life unemployed, in hiding and experiencing symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. The online public had essentially sentenced Sacco to one year of punishment for her insensitivity, ignorance and crude display of white privilege.
Public shaming has long been used to maintain social order. Shame has also served as a form of recourse for marginalized people when institutionalized forms of justice have failed them. While social media has granted nearly two -billion people with the means to express themselves—and hold others accountable for their opinions—the global machine of online shaming is also more prone to the errors of herd mentality. With the ability to react instantly, we sometimes fail to ask an important question: are we being fair?
Jennifer Jacquet, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University, is currently studying the uses of shame for human co-operation. “Balancing group and self-interest has never been easy, yet human societies display a high level of co-operation,” she writes. “To attain that level, specialized traits had to evolve, including such emotions as shame. […] Shame is what is supposed to occur after an individual fails to co-operate with the group.”
The basic premise of Jacquet’s analysis involves a constant balance between self-interest and the interest of the larger group. This balance is crucial for human co-operation, which is what facilitates collective learning: the sharing of information among humans that ultimately drives the innovation necessary for our survival.
The observation of modern hunter-gatherer societies provides many clues about the early evolution of certain group behaviours. Anthropologists have noted that hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian: all resources are shared equally among tribe members, regardless of their ability to obtain such resources. The hoarding of resources is considered a severe offense, and public shaming is often the chosen punishment for the crime. Egalitarian societies have been observed to practice “reverse dominance” to prevent any one person from gaining power; one method of enforcement is public criticism and ridicule, to deflate the ego of the person who has attempted to gain power over others. If such punishment fails, the offender may be shunned and forced to live in isolation.
As human populations continued to expand and cities were established, power dynamics grew more volatile, and inequality among citizens emerged. Formal law was established to maintain social order within a larger group of people; however, public shaming remained as a tool for social order, exercised by those in power. At first glance, the establishment of the formal justice system would seem to erase the need for shame—legal process is seemingly ruled by order, while shame is subject to the chaos of public reaction—but formal law and public shaming have a longstanding relation-ship.
Perhaps the most common example of public shaming within the justice system is the stocks, dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. Petty criminals were often sentenced to endure a certain period of time in the stocks in a public space, where passersby would hurl verbal and physical assaults at the offender. Public floggings and hangings were also common and drew large crowds that would bind communities together in the desire to see justice served.
While the stocks are no longer used as a standard penalty for petty crime, we should not be so presumptuous as to think our current legal system does not continue to use public shaming as a form of punishment. In 2006, a Delaware judge ordered a sex offender who exposed himself to a 10-year-old girl to wear a t-shirt with the words, “I am a registered sex offender” at work for 22 months after his release from prison. Less extreme examples of lawful shaming are public trials, open access to criminal records, and “perp walks,” the American practice of marching the accused through a public place for the purpose of media -exposure.
Throughout most of the modern era, the power to shame has rested in the hands of those with economic means. Oppressed and marginalized groups such as women, people of colour and LGBT people have had limited access to shame as a tool to change the behaviour of those who commit crimes against others.
Social media has since unlocked access to the powerful tool that is shame, and access to such a tool has become nearly ubiquitous as technology becomes available across economic divides, ethnic groups and people in developing countries. With the ability to spread messages on an international scale with the click of a button, social media has granted a voice to those who were previously voiceless in a pre-connected world.
Sexism. Bigotry. Transphobia. Growing economic disparity. It’s 2016, and we still have much to feel ashamed of.
There is little doubt that various human rights movements since the 1960s have left the Western world a better place for many marginalized groups since the first half of the twentieth century. Women, people of colour and LGBT people have fought hard to gain many of the basic human rights they did not previously have. Inequalities within these groups and others still exist, however, and social media has allowed people to mobilize online and offline to effect change where it is needed.
Social media’s role in spreading key messages and gathering groups of people is best demonstrated by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which began after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Three Black community organizers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, created the hashtag, which has since become the backbone of the contemporary Black rights movement against targeted police brutality.
After Zimmerman’s acquittal, #BlackLivesMatter spread as similar events occurred in New York (Eric Garner), Ferguson (Michael Brown) and Dallas (Sandra Bland), among many others. As police brutality against Black people continued to receive media interest, social media followed suit and played an important role in organizing real-life protests—with shame as a motivator.
On a now-defunct webpage on BlackLivesMatter.com, a list of demands included the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, the police officer involved in the Ferguson shooting. When Eric Garner was choked by police during an unarmed confrontation in July 2014, the -incident was recorded and the online footage went viral, as did the hashtag #ICantBreathe—the words Garner uttered 11 times as police held him down before he later died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.
While the success of the Black Lives Matter movement has yet to be seen at an institutional level, public protests supplanted by social media have managed to shift public opinion on the need for racial equality. According to a poll conducted by the Washington Post in 2014, when asked if the U.S. needed to make changes to ensure equality between Blacks and Whites, 46 percent of Americans were in agreement that more needed to be done. After a year of protests and media/social media coverage, the portion rose to 60 percent, with a noticeable rise in opinion among white people.
While the age-old purpose of shame as a form of social accountability continues to play an important role in contemporary society, the methods and consequences of large-scale shaming become more difficult to calibrate as the world’s population and communications networks expand in reach. When such uncontrolled forms of public shaming turn against groups that have not yet achieved cultural and economic equality, shame may result in further oppression. Shaming, by nature, is chaotic and therefore imperfect—and on such large scales, the consequences carry more weight than ever before.
While the feminist movement has achieved many tangible successes since its second wave in the 1960s, this advancement coupled with social media’s ability to spread shame worldwide has produced a backlash that women are currently experiencing on a global level. From women’s sexuality to their bodies and the way they practice motherhood, women’s behaviour is still subject to much scrutiny and shamed if it does not adhere to a standard narrative of women’s behaviour. Social media creates a vast space for this scrutiny.
A key feature of third-wave feminism is sexual independence, meaning that a woman’s sexuality is solely her own prerogative rather than a societal one. “Slut shaming” has emerged as a backlash against the rise of sexual freedom for women, and it is defined as “the act of criticizing a woman for her real or presumed sexual activity.”
An extreme form of online slut shaming is “revenge porn,” the nonconsensual sharing of private, sexual visual material “with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress.” The material is often posted alongside a woman’s contact information and place of employment, and many women have lost their jobs after the material is sent to colleagues. Oftentimes, the person posting content is a woman’s previous partner who feels wronged in some way and is “seeking revenge.”
To a lesser extreme, women in positions of power may also be shamed for their appearance and/or behaviour. Serena Williams, undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest living athletes, was recently shamed widely on social media for her supposedly “large” and “masculine” appearance. Williams’ experience is only one of many instances where women who have demonstrated excellence in their fields bear the brunt of shame tactics. In these cases, shame is used to objectify women as a means to reduce the power they have gained but were not inherently born with. Here, shame takes on a maladaptive form; it’s not used to correct a societal wrong, but rather control the behaviour of a specific group of people who have not yet achieved economic and cultural equality.
There is shaming and there is criticism—and users of social media have a responsibility to learn the difference between the two so they can make informed decisions when voicing opinions online. While history has demon-strated that shame is an important and justified weapon in the fight for equality amongst marginalized people, large-scale shaming in today’s interconnected world is difficult to control. As a result, shaming can sometimes end in an overextension of punishment for those whose ignorance may simply be rectified with education.
As our global communications networks have placed more distance between “shamer” and “wrongdoer,” it’s become increasingly difficult to witness the effects of shaming first hand. While it’s not inherently wrong to shame those who have unfairly used their power and privilege against others, we may all benefit from a simple pause before we click, the simple asking of the question, “Am I being fair?” t8n
Looking to get involved or learn more? Here are some hashtags to watch: