Have we become obsessed with a culture of online shaming?

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock


In August this year, Metro FM host Criselda Dudumashe came under fire following her comments on Mduduzi Manana, the former deputy minister of higher education and training who assaulted a woman at a club

"I know a Mdu who has dedicated his life to developing those who are on the margins through his drive and passion for youth development. But having interacted with him I know how remorseful he is.

"However, I just can't help remember when my then-partner would beat the living daylight out of me.

"All I could pray for was for him to receive 'proper' help because I also knew him as a loving and caring father outside his misdirected anger," she said.

She was instantly vilified and faced being fired.

The notion of public shaming is not altogether new. It’s been around for centuries, but with the rise of technology has come an intimidating new level – and fear – of public shaming.

Many of us are all too familiar with a tweet that overwhelmed our Twitter feed back in 2013:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” tweeted 30-year-old Justine Sacco as she boarded her plane to Cape Town.

The sarcastic tweet turned into the then-PR's worst nightmare.

With only 170 Twitter followers she hardly expected a response, but after an 11-hour flight she switched on her phone and noticed an influx of horror messages from friends and family.

Within half a day, Sacco quickly became the most-talked about person on social media, but for all the wrong reasons. 

She became the poster-person for “How to destroy your career in 140 characters” and “How to lose your job in 10 seconds” and the worldwide number one trending topic on Twitter. None of them were congratulating her sense of humour.

The world didn't know her so they assumed the worst. She could not win salvation. 

From being labelled to a “cunt” to saying she should be raped, to calls for her to be fired, no one questioned the people behind their devices for inappropriately annihilating her. She had experienced a full nightmare: cyber bullying, online threats and getting fired from her job.

There was a human impulse of the assembly on Twitter to be the judge and online executioner, ruining the life of the person they had just come across online.

Forget trolling. We are bullies with a herd mentality. People underestimated how profoundly traumatising it was for Sacco to be socially shunned and to not be given the chance to have her tweet be put in a wider context. Do we really believe that her comment warranted people's attempt to destroy her life?

Read more: I age-shamed Kylie Jenner for her alleged pregnancy

When Diana Andrews made an uncool move on her Instagram story by bodyshaming a gymgoer's love handles, the story that was supposed to last 24 hours and disappear as if it never happened had the opposite effect.

Her followers screengrabbed it and unexpectedly put her at the receiving end of scornful remarks on Facebook and Twitter. 

Labelled a "pig", a "bitch", a "cunt", "ugly" and her face "an experiment that went wrong", it's hardly surprising that there were only a handful of tweets that did not succumb to the cattiness of her level. 

Her attitude was rightfully cited for discouraging many women from having the courage to exercise in public and as a fitness instructor she should've known better.

But the insulting and derogatory comments are unwarranted and even after issuing two written apologies, the inflow of abusive messages still continued a week later. 

There is no question that the story was offensive and showed insensitivity, but can you rightly make a stand for anti-bullying while at the same dehumanising and bullying someone else?

Care worker Lindsey Stone was slammed when she posted a photo of herself on Facebook, making a rude gesture by a war memorial. It went viral, she lost her job, received death threats and she didn't leave her house for a year.

There was even a Facebook page titled "Fire Lindsey Stone" which garnered more than 15 000 likes. The page was removed, but the psychological effects remained.

Jon Ronson, author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed points out a disturbing truth in his TED Talk: women face harsher online shaming than men. 

"When a man gets shamed, it’s ‘I’m going to get you fired’. When a woman gets shamed, it’s ‘I’m going to get you fired and raped and cut out your uterus.'"

And he further highlights why we do what we do: Twitter is a "mutual approving machine" – we surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do and it’s a good feeling. 

The Gawker journalist who retweeted Sacco's tweet to his 15 000 followers later told Ronson that “it felt delicious, but I’m sure she’s fine”. 

...would the smartest thing to survive, as Ronson suggests, mean going back to being voiceless?

Read more: Here are 5 great ways to be a better person on the internet

Our fundamental fear when we're about to click "tweet" or "post" is the possibility of our words being misjudged with life-changing consequences to follow, so we shy away from social media or simply act as lurkers online. It's almost impossible to genuinely retract a statement

We reread our tweets and posts ten times before posting anything because we're terrified that we might inadvertently offend someone and face backlash from the Twitter-verse, aiming to make us look insensitive and stupid.

Rather than free speech, social media seemingly promotes and essentially requires a worrying level of self-censorship. 

If one poorly executed joke or ill-phrased statement in a bottom-line attempt to be popular – as opposed to offend – can be taken out of context, would the smartest thing to survive, as Ronson suggests, mean going back to being voiceless? 

We have all botched a joke and given a bad impression but have not been condemned with life-changing consequences or with people thinking we deserve to die.

We need to send the person a polite private message, not jump on the bandwagon and retweet immediately to Gawker. And we need to give people the chance to reform – even those who say nasty things because they are not monsters.

Shaming, attacking, threatening them and ruining their lives for the thrill and perverse enjoyment does not make us as bad as them – it makes us worse, because, in the words of Meghan O’Gieblyn in the Boston Review, "the act of shaming is not a launch pad for social change but rather a cathartic alternative to it."

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.

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