The Internet has become a powerful weapon of shaming the wrongdoings of the public with rapid sharing results. In recent years, Internet users have been taking social injustices into their own hands through online contribution on new media platforms. Through the rise in popularity of social media, this form of online vigilantism prosecutes the “wrong-sayers”. If acknowledged and shared by the public, a passing comment can have long-lasting consequences for an individual.   

South London art student, Hetty Douglas was propelled to infamy this summer initially through an Instagram post with the caption: “these guys look like they got 1 GCSE”. This has led to her moving to a new house and erasing her online presence completely due to the attacks on her misuse of privilege. She has defended her story on her website, saying it should be a “cautionary tale” to others who don’t consider the damage their words can cause online.  

Journalist, Jon Ronson, debates some of the ethical and sociological questions of online shaming in his book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed (2015). Comparing to precursory moments of shaming in history, Ronson investigates how shaming has resurfaced through online manifestations.

One of the most famous incidents that Ronson discusses in his book is with Justine Sacco, a New York PR worker. Initially with 170 followers, just before her flight, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” When landing after her 11-hour flight, Sacco was fired from her job and the number one trending topic on Twitter. A distasteful joke about white privilege turned her into the most hated woman on the Internet.

In his book, Ronson recognises: “But we know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins. So why do we pretend that we don’t?” When a trend spreads, there is a mob mentality in attacking the author of the post. The Internet can create their own narrative for a person and decimate their character in front of the whole world. In Hetty Douglas’s case, a personal explanation was posted online claiming that she was not the “spoilt rich girl” that she had been labelled as. Unfortunately for her – and many others in her situation – the public had already decided her fate.

British science fiction series, Black Mirror, took inspiration partly from Ronson’s book in satirising and exaggerating the effects of online shaming in “Hated in a Nation”. Written by series creator, Charlie Brooker, the episode investigates the deaths of people who were the subjected to online shaming. All targets were connected to the hashtag “#DeathTo”, parodying death threats assigned to people in the real world are given with literal consequences.

Brooker extrapolates a concept from our Internet world sending it into seemingly ridiculous realms for the near future – but is he highlighting some prevalent issues within our Internet behaviour?

It would be wrong to call these targets of online verbal abuse “victims” as often enough they have incited hate without considering the repercussions of their words. However, this notion  accommodates Andy Warhol’s prophecy: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Everyone forgets them eventually, but these “wrong-sayers” live with the consequences of their words for a long time.

For many, online content is inerasable, but there are now implementations in place to suppress negative online presences. Interestingly, you can pay companies to reinvent your online presence when your name is typed into a search engine. According to the Search Engine Journal, 75% of people don’t scroll past the first page of results, so through the creation of new webpages, a company can push old (and hateful) sites to the back of Google.

This article is in no way condoning offensive posts online, but merely conjures the debate of whether it is right to form a collective rage of righteousness. The fame of the individual on trial by the Internet may only last fifteen minutes, but the aftermath of the hate storm can last for years.

About the author

Louisa Streeting

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