As a form of modern witch hunt, the tendency to persecute others has shifted from public shame to online shame. The luxury of the digital age is that we have an open forum to express our opinion. It’s not uncommon to scroll down the comments on a blog or social media post and watch how completely strangers name, outwit, and belittle each other.
The psychological burden that cyberbullying places on victims is well researched and is usually referred to as youth-driven. However, it seems that no age group can avoid the effects of social media harassment and the psychological stress this form of shame can bring. Online shame is not limited to a small niche of people. And the extent to which people respond to an insult can blur the line between isolated dissatisfaction and extensive vigilante justice.
Sara (changed for anonymity reasons), a childhood friend of mine, was featured in a viral video that recorded an argument outside of the context she had with a stranger. Sara has struggled with her mental health since I know her. The short clip shows Sara in aggressive and vulgar language and quickly blown up on all social media. Not long after, their personal information was made available to web surfers who then took on the task of organizing a rally. These vigilantes went to their parents’ homes and held picket signs while making death threats. Shortly afterwards, Sara’s workplace published a statement informing the public that she had been released for wrongdoing. I can’t find Sara anywhere. It is likely that she changed her name, place of residence and maybe even her appearance to avoid public scrutiny.
The disclosure of personal information is called doxing. When a victim is targeted by an online mob, they can not only suffer physically, but also experience psychological trauma. A study of doxing found that the victim felt depressed, anxious, and stressed when some form of personal information was released to the public. Another study asked 1,963 middle school students in the United States about their experience with online harassment. Regardless of whether the adolescents in this study were bullied or acted as bullies themselves, they showed an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
Some would argue that, under certain circumstances, it is justified to disclose personal information if an individual has violated the law or public normality to an extreme degree. Lists of sex offenders are often in the public domain.
In 2018, the Canadian province of Ontario updated its drinking and driving laws. Law enforcement agencies are now posting online the names of people who have been accused of driving problems, even if they have not been convicted.
When information is presented, whether factual or fictional, people are prone to cognitive prejudice, and even if the breathalyzer or eyewitness is inaccurate, individuals will most likely remember the original claim.
Cyber lawyer and author Sue Scheff offers numerous resources to combat the effects of online shame.
We are witnessing the development of public humiliation to strengthen real justice and self-justice, and reform a mob mentality in which persecution becomes an open invitation to shame.
-Courtney Campbell, contributing writer
Feature: Wikimedia.org, Creative Commons
First: agnieszkasadkowska at Deviant Art Creative Commons
Second: Dario Cervantes at flikr, Creative Commons