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Does The Internet Really Make Public Shaming Worse?

02/20/2015 09:17 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2015
Pantheon

The following is an excerpt from Jennifer Jacquet's Is Shame Necessary, a new book that analyzes the merits and potential problems with holding others accountable for their mistakes, particularly in the digital age. In this chapter, Jacquet proposes that online shaming has taken on a new form entirely since Internet use became widespread, namely because disparaging comments now spread quickly and sometimes anonymously.

In seventeenth-century Boston, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne ambled through the streets with a scarlet letter “illuminated upon her bosom.” Today, the U.S. government might not be interested in her affair (unless she was a U.S. politician), but if Prynne were Chinese, her marriage record might be online. Chinese officials began making marriage records available in 2011, starting with Beijing and Shanghai, with plans for all of China by 2015.

The all-seeing, omnipresent government makes most people uncomfortable, which was true long before the Internet. Writer Milan Kundera, who immigrated to France from a “surveillance-riddled Czechoslovakia,” wrote that “when it becomes the custom and the rule to divulge another person’s private life, we are entering a time when the highest stake is the survival or the disappearance of the individual.” Kundera was referring to state surveillance, which the Internet allows with increasing ease.

Despite what might be implied in its name, we now know that the U.S. National Security Agency collects data on individuals all over the globe, even in virtual worlds like Second Life. Police departments around the United State have experimented with different forms of shaming on difference social media platforms for every type of criminal. Governments not only are watching us, but are developing policies and platforms that threaten to expose, and thereby shame, public offenders. But large-scale surveillance and the potential shaming that comes with it are no longer reserved for just governments.

"The Hester Prynne of today need not worry about the government, but she might instead find herself the object of contempt on a Facebook page created by her cuckolded husband."
Digital technologies now provide a platform conducive to anyone exposing behavior, not just the state. The Hester Prynne of today need not worry about the government, but she might instead find herself the object of contempt on a Facebook page created by her cuckolded husband. He might add her name and photograph to CheaterVille.com (whose bald motto is “Look Who’s Getting Caught with Their Pants Down”™). He might post naked photos of her online. He might decide to use social media to shame Prynne’s paramour. (In June 2011, a judge in England dismissed two charges of harassment against a London man who had used social-networking sites to shame his wife’s lover.) In other words, the Hester Prynne of today isn’t necessarily any safer from shaming.

There are nongovernment websites displaying cheaters, mug shots, deadbeat dads, and sex offenders. A neighborhood group in Leicester, England, posts videos of people caught littering, and removes them only if the “litter louts” are identified and pay their fine. A father made his teenage daughter post a video to Facebook in which she admitted to how young she was and apologized for deceiving boys. A colleague told me that after an argument, his teenage son edited his father’s Wikipedia profile to say he was a pedophile (ah, New Yorkers). Consumers use their social networks to expose bad services and products, but it cuts both ways: a restaurant in Los Angeles uses Twitter to shame people who do not show up for their reservation. Today, there is a whole reputation-related Internet vocabulary, such as digital footprint (what’s on the Web about you), digital dirt (the bad stuff about you online), sock puppet (an online identity used for purposes of deception), dooced (to lose your job for something you said on your website), and doxing (the act of revealing personal information about someone online).

"One major difference between shame online and shame past is the speed at which it can happen. Another is that, with the Internet, it’s no longer necessarily clear who is doing the shaming."
But isn’t this just an Internet version of vigilantism, which, like shaming itself, changes with each new set of communication tools? Is online shaming really so different from being tarred and feathered or being featured in the tabloids? One major difference between shame online and shame past is the speed at which it can happen. Another is that, with the Internet, it’s no longer necessarily clear who is doing the shaming. Anonymous, an informal and anonymous collective of online activists and protesters, hacked accounts and leaked a video online of two Ohio high school football players joking about having raped a girl, which, defense attorneys worried, undermined their right to a fair trial. Anonymous issued a statement that “they” shared the worry about a fair trial, too -- because cover-ups by officials and because the boys were star athletes. A judge sentenced both boys to prison time.

The speed at which information can travel, the frequency of anonymous shaming, the size of the audience it can reach, and the permanence of the information separate digital shaming from shaming of the past. In this new global panopticon, we must be mindful of shame’s power and its liabilities. It is difficult to imagine anyone ever acquiring pre-Internet levels of privacy, but there are now looming questions about whether there is a right to privacy and, if so, where it begins and ends. It is also true that with regards to these new platforms, many of the old arguments against shaming become less useful. (The term “Internet” is not indexed in Martha Nussbaum’s book against state shaming.) Legal scholars who have argued that shaming cannot be effective in highly mobile, anonymous, and urban societies haven’t spent enough time online.

From the book: IS SHAME NECESSARY? by Jennifer Jacquet. Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Jacquet. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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