By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
In recent times there has been quite some discussion on the phenomenon of internet shaming. Two important recent events were the (admirable, brave) TED talk by Monica Lewinsky, and the publication of Jon Ronson’s book So you’ve been publicly shamed. Lewinsky’s plight mostly pre-dates the current all-pervasiveness of the internet in people’s lives, but she was arguably one of the first victims of this new form of shaming: shaming that takes world-wide(-web) proportions, no longer confined to the locality of a village or a city. Pre-internet, people could move to a different city, if need be to a different country, and start over again. Now, only changing your name would do, to avoid being ‘googled down’ by every new person or employer you meet.
As described in Ronson’s book (excerpt here, interview with Ronson here), lives can be literally destroyed by an internet shaming campaign (the main vehicle for that seems to be Twitter, judging from his stories). Justine Sacco, formerly a successful senior director of corporate communications at a big company, had her life turned upside down as a result of one (possibly quite unfortunate, though in a sense also possibly making an anti-racist point) tweet: ““Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” From there on, her life became a tragedy of Kafkaesque proportions, and she’s only one of the many people having faced similar misfortunes discussed in Ronson’s book. Clearly, people truly delight in denouncing someone as ‘racist’, as in Sacco’s case; it probably makes them feel like they are making a contribution (albeit a small one) to a cause they feel strongly about. But along the way, for the sake of ‘justice’, they drag through the dirt someone whose sole ‘crime’ was to post a joke of debatable tastefulness on Twitter. But who has never said anything unfortunate, which they later came to regret, on the internet?