Before you join the online mob, think. You could be next

Unthinkable: On social media, people can be cruel while sounding moral

‘A culture of shaming imperils public debate as people will be driven to self-censor.’ Photograph: Getty images

In the western world, clergymen used to have a monopoly on shaming. If you were condemned from the pulpit you could expect to be ostracised from your community, your job would be in jeopardy and you’d literally or metaphorically (depending on the era) be burnt at the stake.

Today, however, shaming is more democratic. All you need is a keyboard and a few followers, and the consequences for those targeted can be devastating.

Take for example, the case of Justine Sacco who fired off a tweet before boarding a plane to Cape Town saying: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS". By the time the company director had landed, an internet hate-storm had erupted which led to her immediate sacking. Four years later, and despite her pleadings that the comment was a joke in poor taste directed to friends, the stain on her reputation still follows her.

The phenomenon of public shaming has been tracked by Dr Guy Aitchison, an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow, who spoke on the topic at a conference last month to mark the opening of UCD's Centre for Ethics Public Life. One person's shaming is another's "holding to account" and the practice can target a variety of behaviours, from the downright criminal to the mildly offensive.


Today's Unthinkable guest, Aitchison recommends action be taken by social media companies to mitigate the effect of dubious witch-hunts, while also stressing the responsibility of every keyboard warrior. "Before we condemn someone online," he says, "we might pause to imagine them there in the room next to us, listening to our words."

Shaming can be used to expose wrongdoing, or simply to bully. How does one distinguish good shaming from bad?

“If someone exposes our wrongdoing, then we may experience shame as a result. But does that make it a case of shaming? It depends how it’s done.

“I would argue that shaming involves not merely public criticism or calling attention to misdeeds, but an attack on someone’s character that paints them as morally deviant and tainted. It therefore has close links to the idea of social ostracism.

"Philosophers have generally been very sceptical about shame and shaming. For Martha Nussbaum, shame threatens human dignity by robbing people of self-respect.

“It is common to draw a contrast here with the idea of guilt, which is a more private emotion. Both shame and guilt are a response to the violation of social norms. However, instead of degrading someone’s character, guilt-based punishments encourage them to reflect on how their actions affect others and to admit their error out of respect for themselves.

Shamers often underestimate the destructive impact their actions can have

“Today, explicit shaming penalties are no longer part of the criminal justice system, but social media has given rise to a new type of informal collective power.

“Many of the due process concerns with traditional shaming punishments are magnified online due to the speed at which judgments are made, the global reach of the shaming and the potential for cruelty and excess given the anonymity and disinhibiting effects of digital interaction. There is also a permanency to online shamings which leave a searchable record easily retrieved by employers, universities, friends, and romantic prospects.

“Nonetheless, there may be a moral case for calling attention to crimes and misdeeds where other remedies are not available. Take the ‘Me Too’ campaign which has seen powerful men face consequences for their abusive and sometimes violent sexual behaviour in a context where the system was clearly failing the victims over many years.

“In this case, the men and women who were abused felt less shame in going public because they could see that they were not alone. Still, it is important that fair procedures are followed in the face of media pressure.”

What attracts people to online “mobbing”? It is related, do you think, to a loss of faith in traditional politics?

“It’s tempting to speculate. Certainly, it can deliver an addictive hit of empowerment, which is not unlike being physically present at a protest or a political meeting. However, I think there are deeper psychological mechanisms at work.

“No doubt many people who take part in online pile-ons with abuse, harassment and even ‘doxing’ (where private information is involuntarily exposed), think they are acting morally. In that sense, it recalls Nietzsche’s critique of moralism and the ways in which people disguise their cruelty and desire to feel superior under the guise of upholding moral values.

“There is often an individualistic logic to this behaviour, distributing blame and holding individuals culpable for institutional and structural problems.

“There is also evidence from psychology studies that online interactions are experienced as less ‘real’ and consequential than face-to-face ones, not least because people can’t pick up on the emotional and social cues of others. It follows that shamers often underestimate the destructive impact their actions can have. In particular, women and ethnic minorities are often singled out for especially vicious attacks.”

What is the correct punishment for someone who says something offensive or hurtful?

“It is not clear that any punishment is due to them. There are already laws in place to deal with cyber-bullying and harassment and Ireland – like most European countries – has laws against hate speech, though some argue these don’t go far enough. There is a danger that any prohibition on material deemed offensive or hurtful is used to censor dissent and shut down ideological opponents.

We ought to refrain from behaviour that recklessly incites shaming against private persons and calls for them to be sanctioned, fired and ostracised

“Views can be criticised, condemned and ridiculed and we can even block someone and refuse to interact with them further. On the other hand, recklessly inciting others to attack and ostracise them, simply because of what they have said, is objectionable. As well as the effects on them personally, a culture of shaming imperils public debate as people will be driven to self-censor and avoid controversial topics.

“In China, they refer to the ‘human flesh search engine’ where internet users collaborate to publicly humiliate those who have breached societal norms or are deemed unpatriotic, including supporters of Tibetan independence. This pressure to conformity is something J.S Mill was acutely sensitive to.”

Have social media companies a duty to combat online shaming, and what might they do?

“Social media companies already have regulations in place for dealing with threats, harassment, privacy breaches and other abuses. More could be done to enforce these rules, but when it comes to the fine-grained judgments around shaming these companies lack the authority to judge what counts as an instance of unacceptable speech and they risk censoring robust forms of public criticism.

“Alternative solutions include a voluntary code of conduct on social media platforms that explicitly disavows shaming or else a ‘right of reply’ so that shamed individuals can respond to their tainted online record.

“Arguably, companies like Facebook should also make their privacy settings more transparent and easy to operate so that users do not risk exposing their personal information to those that might abuse it. Yet ultimately, we have to recognise that these are profit-making corporations who have a vested interest in the clicks that come with each episode of online outrage.”

What about the role of individuals? Do we need a new kind of ethics for online behaviour that, for example, emphasises the need for due process and proportionality?

“As a start, we ought to refrain from behaviour that recklessly incites shaming against private persons and calls for them to be sanctioned, fired and ostracised. There may be more latitude in the case of politicians and other public figures who wield power and put themselves forward for mass public scrutiny.

“We should also adopt a principle of charity in how we interpret the speech of others, rather than assuming the worst possible motivations.

“In turn, employers, universities, schools, and other organisations could make a commitment not to bypass institutional grievance procedures under pressure from online pile-ons. They should also be transparent about how people’s digital footprint informs decisions about hiring, admissions, and advancement so that people have a chance to respond.

“In the end, we all stand to benefit from more responsible online discourse.”


Ask a sage:

Nietzsche asks (and replies): “Whom do you call bad? Those who always want to induce shame. What do you consider the most humane? To spare someone shame.”