Virtual mob justice: The rise of the online 'shame army'


Social media and the internet have become the go-to tools for people to shame others, some with altruistic motivations and others with more malicious intent. But when does 'public shaming' go too far?


A few years ago a Gold Coast man lost his job after his employer confronted him about his comments on Facebook.

Due to the man's low privacy settings The Anti-Bogan blog was able to publish some of the screen shots on its "Wall of Shame". A member of the public felt so concerned by the derogatory remarks that she contacted the man's employer, which led to an investigation and his termination.

"People's lives shouldn't be ruined because they posted something stupid on Facebook."

Last week, a YouTube video emerged of two Caucasian expats "stealing" an Asian girl from what appeared to be her boyfriend during a night out in Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong bar district. It has racked up over a million views and sparked a lot of angry debate about foreigners behaving badly and the morality of the girls. Meanwhile, the man in question has had his digital footprint downloaded and publicised on blogs and forums.

In China, this type of sleuthing goes by the term "human flesh search engine", translated from renrou sousou yinqing (人肉搜搜引擎). This is the phenomenon where netizens work together to uncover the identity or the alleged perpetrator of a crime. 

From businesses (like Messina gelato, the Annandale Hotel), to newspaper editors, owners of missing pets (Lola the cat, Buckie the dog) and social movement crusaders (#everydaysexism), people are taking matters into their own hands.

Then there are the tragic casualties of sexting and cyberbullying culture (Tyler Clement, Chevonea Kendall-Bryan, Audrie Pott) with the worst example of this revenge porn.

The shaming spectrum is varied but the purpose is essentially the same: to expose someone so that what they have done is in the public domain. Or, as Whitney Phillips writes in The Awl, online vigitalantism is meant to call attention to, or push back against, some real or perceived offence.

Kate Miltner said while public humiliation has been used for centuries as judicial punishments, in the recent cases of Michael Brutsch (Violentacrez a.k.a the "creepy uncle of Reddit" and "Biggest Troll on the Web") and Hunter Moore (the "Man Who Makes Money Publishing Your Nude Pics"), shaming was used to provide recourse in the absence of a meaningful legal solution.

"The things that Brutsch and Moore did aren't technically illegal, but clearly cross many moral boundaries. So, because there wasn't much that could be done from a legal perspective, people took matters into their own hands and meted out their own form of punishment," Ms Miltner explains.

This is exactly what's happened to Justine Sacco, Lindsay Stone, and the young Aussie who had her African-themed 21st party photos splashed all over the web.

In some ways, the internet is one giant wall of shame. Once it's out there, it's hard to retract. Stopping short of an identity change, the person's reputation can be forever tainted.

"One of the major problems with online shaming, which is that the outcome often ends up being different from the original intent: what starts off as a 'tsk-tsk-tsk' ends up being a permanent, often life-damaging record of the shaming targets' mistakes and/or transgressions," says Ms Miltner.

Case in point is South Korea's Dog Poop Girl, or Adria Richards who ended up losing her job after tweeting about sexist jokes she'd heard at a work conference.

"We have always wanted to shame people who did bad things. Now it's cheap to do it. It's easy to break down the barriers," New Yorker staff writer and author Malcolm Gladwell as quoted in the New York Times.

So what would be the take-home message from all of this?

Ms Phillips, who did her Phd dissertation on trolls, believes it's a tricky balance between moderation, reason and compassion.

"I agree that we shouldn't just stand idly by while people are victimised, but the problem with the nature of online shaming as it currently stands is that once the hounds are unleashed, they go for broke, no matter what the original crime was."

"So, ideally we'll develop some sort of normative standard around proportionality - ie, don't ruin someone's life for doing something that any person could have done in a moment when his or her judgment was lacking. Compassion and reason are (kind of) built into the legal system, it should apply to the internet as well. We no longer throw people into jail for life for stealing a loaf of bread; people's lives shouldn't be ruined because they posted something stupid on Facebook. We should be able to say 'this is not okay' without resorting to catastrophic punishments," Ms Phillips writes.

Laura Hudson sums it up pretty well: "At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicise injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it's a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible."

On Insight's episode on shame we hear from a newspaper editor who names and shames drink drivers, a gelato store owner who shamed thieves into returning a stolen birthday cake, and a transgender Jewish woman who was told she could only come to the synagogue if she sat in the men's section.

Source SBS, SBS Staff

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch