Public shaming: Gone too far

Public shaming: Its roots are in holding people accountable for bad behavior, but online it can become dangerous. People lose their jobs, go into hiding, and sometimes choose to end their own lives. Why is this happening, and how can we stop public shaming from going to far?

The stocks and pillory: They’re tools for public shaming we’ve seen in movies or history books. Fast forward to today, and public shaming has taken on a new life, online.

"Are you more careful about the things that you post?" I asked mom, Katie McClain.

"I am, absolutely," she told me.

McClain learned that lesson the hard way, after a post she made on Facebook about her kids and a holiday class project got more than 200 comments, many of them angry.

"I was just trying to be silly, and then I look and I have all of these notifications," McClain said.

She made the decision then to be more careful in the future.

For some, though, it gets much worse. Case in point: a tweet from Justine Sacco in 2013 that says "Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!"

Sacco later apologized, but it would cost her job, earn her threats of rape and death, and send her into hiding. Her life hasn’t been the same since. 

"For the past three years I’ve been going around the world meeting people like Justine Sacco, and believe me, there’s a lot of people like Justine Sacco," Jon Ronson, author of the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, told a TED Talks audience.  "There’s more every day." 

Ronson says the impact is very real, and very dangerous.

"We want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine," Ronson said. "The people I met were mangled. They talked to me about depression and anxiety and insomnia and suicidal thoughts."

"In the last four to five years, it has definitely increased, and that appears to be a trend from what I am seeing," licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Sarah Shelton of the Psychological Wellness Group of Paducah said. "The damage is widespread and it’s immense, and it does seem to be growing."

"Do you think people behave differently on social media than they behave in person?" I asked her.

"They absolutely do," Shelton answered.

The question is why? Shelton says one reason is the sense of anonymity we have online.

"Even if you’re using your real name, your real photo, there is still a barrier between you and that other person," Shelton explained. "That allows you to express yourself or behave in a way that you might otherwise modify if it were a person-to-person encounter in real life."

Another reason is that people think what happens online is not as real as what happens face-to-face.

"There’s the old adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,," Shelton said. "But that’s a myth. Words hurt a lot."

McClain knows this is true, because it has happened to her.

"It was years ago that somebody said to me online, and it, I have forgiven them for it, but it hurt me to my core," McClain told me.

It’s that lesson McClain is using to teach her kids not only to protect themselves online, but others.

"I try and lead by the best example that I can, as far as what you say to people, your words, how you treat other people," McClain said.

Shelton says depression, anxiety, even suicide can be the outcome of public shaming because it lives online forever.

Ultimately, Shelton says correcting the problem starts with all of us.

"There is an impulsiveness about the internet that happens. It’s so easy. It takes only seconds to fire off a tweet, or post something on your page or even to send an email," Shelton said. "If we were to take five minutes or less and reevaluate what we say before we hit a button, we would choose to change some things."

Have you been shamed online? Take our quiz at the bottom of this page. 

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