Has Online Shaming Gone Too Far?

We live in a world where shaming a stranger is made easy when its done behind a screen, but who is actually affected? How do we navigate this online shaming?

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If you’ve ever navigated the twists and turns of social media, you more than likely have witnessed a user getting destroyed by the opinions of strangers online. No matter if it's due to a heated debate or snap moral judgment — we live in an era where shaming those online who don't fit a societal mold is now the new normal.

These days, the anonymity of the screen makes it easy for people to attack those with differing opinions. Trolls scour message boards and comment sections, looking for easy targets, but it’s more than that.

We’ve entered into a society that is quick to shame those who have broken some sort of moral law, even if that wasn’t necessarily the individual’s intention. Take for example a case in September with married actors Nikki Reed and Ian Somerhalder.

The couple was participating in a radio interview, when Somerhalder mentioned that the couple’s decision to become pregnant was due to an incident in which the actor snuck into his wife’s purse and flushed her birth control down the toilet. Twitter did not hesitate to share their appalled reactions. 

These two celebrities were sharing an incident of their lives, one that most definitely brings up questions about reproductive justice and other personal matters, but it was treated with a fervor online that incited users to conjure images of anger and violence. 

Twitter users jumped on the incident instantly, and it became a trending topic for days. Individuals who have never met the couple felt compelled to show just how much they disliked their comments, and they shamed Somerhalder and Reed so much that the two came out with official statements of apology

This is just one incident that displays how easily we fall into this pattern of shaming. They're celebrities though, and as a society we've always been quick to judge those in the spotlight. But what about the average Joe's — are they exempt from online shaming? Unfortunately not. 

In a Ted talk, writer and filmaker Jon Ronson discusses the case of Justine Sacco, a public relations boss from New York, who in 2013 tweeted to her 170 followers. 

Before embarking on a flight from Heathrow to an airport in Africa, she wrote, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

That didn't go over well. While Sacco was on her 11-hour flight, a Gawker journalist shared her tweet, and then the Twittersphere pounced. She became the worldwide trending topic on Twitter, as thousands upon thousands of users tweeted about her senseless joke, calling her a racist and asking that she be fired. Well, she was. 

Sacco later spoke about how her joke wasn't meant to be racist, it was satirical, but no one cared. The Twittersphere ate up and spit out another shame victim, and one woman with 170 followers lost her job, having the incident follow her forever — perfectly preserved online. 

Did Sacco deserve this treatment? Everyday countless individuals make jokes that may come off as racist and not funny, but because of this culture of online shaming, she became the target of millions. 

Andy Crouch, former executive editor for Christianity Today, argues in an essay about guilt culture versus shame culture, that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have created a world of constant display and observation.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in response that the desire to be embraced and praised by the community is so intense that we are constantly trying to "perform" for others in a way that will get us likes on social media. 

So how do we navigate this world of online shaming? It's necessary to remember that at the end of the day, the online world is only a reflection of the world we live in daily. However, our representation — while temporary — can have long-lasting consequences that we need to be wary of.

Shaming has its advantages, and it can be used to call out public officials and the elites who abuse their power, but we must also remember the ramifications of these actions. A trending Twitter topic will last for a couple of days, but the emotional and psychological impact of being attacked by strangers online may last a lifetime.

Banner/Thumbnail Credit: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

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