The Problem With Public Shaming

The Problem With Public Shaming

Unmasking racists and trolls on the Internet may feel like justice, but it does not drive social progress.


"Violentacrez" appears on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360.

Today most people would tell you that the stocks, pillory and other tools of public punishment are barbaric. We’ve moved passed them, having figured out more humane ways to deal with crime. Why, then, the resurgence of public shaming, namely the mainstream acceptance of the “dox,” which, in its purest form, is the digging up of a target’s personal information—name, phone number, address, Social Security number, familial relationships, financial history—and exposing it online to encourage harassment from others? This practice has gradually been popularized by Anonymous, the amorphous collective of trolls and “hacktivists” that alternately terrorize tween girls and disable government websites.

In 2012, this practice was broadly adopted by media outlets. In October, Gawker unmasked a creep, notorious for facilitating the sharing sexualized images of women (underage and otherwise) taken without their consent. Gawker declared him “the biggest troll on the web.” Its sister blog Jezebel called for the naming of names of such creeps, and later exposed a bunch of teenage Twitter users making racist remarks about Obama, going so far as to personally alert the administrators of their schools by phone.

This trend runs silly, as well—Buzzfeed ridiculed spoiled teens whining about their Christmas presents, while every media outlet covered Nice Guys of OK Cupid, a blog that ridicules clueless misogyny by sharing photos of hapless bros with regrettable stances on gender politics. Prepare to see a lot more of this sort of thing now that Facebook has released its Graph Search tool, which makes it possible to search for a controversial keyword or phrase (say, “I hate n—–ers”), find people who’ve used that phrase on their profiles and grab some screenshots—you’ve got a readymade outrage-baiting trend piece.

The dox phenomenon played out with unfortunate results last month, when on March 17, development evangelist Adria Richards tweeted a photo of two men who’d been making sophomoric jokes at a tech conference, leading to the removal of the offenders, and then the firing of one. A wave of backlash ensued against Richards; strangers sent her abusive, threatening messages, and Internet trolls conspired to get her fired, attacking her employer’s website with dummy traffic. Her employer eventually did terminate her contract, citing Richards’s divisive tactics.

The First Amendment protects a lot of abhorrent speech, but societies have always resorted to some form of vigilante justice to preserve widely known and observed rules of social conduct that don’t result in a crime when they’re broken. So we turn instead to public humiliation, an organic form of social control that never really went away completely, as evidenced by the occasional signboard-bearing ne’er-do-well on the nightly news. Publicity-seeking judges occasionally will expose deadbeat dads, public urinators, drunk drivers and repeat drug offenders. But these are outliers. We don’t prop people up in public, brand them with scarlet letters or hurl spoiled produce.

We didn’t cease these punishments because we began to see them as barbaric. They simply stopped working. Historians point to the urbanization of impersonal cities with mobile, transient populations. It’s difficult to encourage shame if they can easily disappear into the crowd or escape to the next town. Shame works in closed, small communities that share similar norms. As the New World opened up and expanded, public humiliation ceased to be an effective means of norm reinforcement.

American adjudicators typically look to five goals to justify a punishment: incapacitation, restitution, deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution. Neither incapacitation nor restitution apply to doxxing, since there are no legal enforcement mechanisms. To the extent that those who engage in public shaming think they are satisfying one of the remaining three, they faultily assume that deeply rooted social ills like racism, sexism and homophobia are personal failings that can be remedied through vicious public blowback and a permanent stain on their character.

It’s common to argue that a perpetrator “deserves” to be shamed, but in fact human psychology doesn’t work this way. Many pedophiles, for instance, recognize that that they are inexorably—even biologically—bound to impulses that they themselves loathe. Does the shaming—through public registries for example—cause the pedophile to reform? Unlikely. Does it deter others from engaging in pedophilic acts, or does it drive them to darker corners and sneakier tactics?

Racism is not as tied to biology, but environment can be a powerful antibody to shame. Imagine you are a teenager living with white supremacist parents surrounded by white supremacist neighbors and you get suspended from school because you said something racist. Do you turn inward and examine your sense of shared humanity with brown people, or do you simply become resentful toward those who’ve punished you, perhaps even more sure of your sundry prejudices? Does it even deter you from vocalizing your racism or do you simply channel it through a different medium where you’re less likely to be caught? In March, a racist New York City EMT employee was outed by the New York Post for posting vile tweets. His online supporters countered with by violently threatening the reporter who broke the story, sometimes anonymously, sometimes not. These behaviors are symptoms of a systemic ideological cancer that is highly resistant to shaming because racists are typically proud of their hate.

Which leaves tit-for-tat as the lone valid criterion for public humiliation. But retribution too, is problematic. Consider the announcement of the Sandy Hook episode and the ensuing media frenzy to name the shooter. He was first incorrectly identified as Ryan Lanza, who turned out to be the killer’s brother. Other “Ryan Lanzas” and their friends and families were harassed during the confusion. Reporters are notoriously bad at getting the facts straight during the frenzied moments following a big story, let alone amateur detectives or doxxers. Things get especially hairy when big media publish the identity of alleged aggressors based on unverified claims from untrustworthy sources. Amateur detectives raced against the FBI to uncover the perpetrators behind the Boston bombings on social news site Reddit. They fingered the wrong person, resulting in a misguided witch hunt that prompted Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin to publicly apologize. Such exposure can lead to misguided counterattacks from a faceless troll army. On an Internet where people can so deftly conceal their identities and impersonate strangers, we must be mindful of our propensity for error.

Then there is the permanence problem. Once embarrassing information about a person is online, it’s never going to go away. Imagine, thirty years from now, some potential employer evaluating a candidate based on a thoughtless remark she made as a teenager. The permanence of uploaded information ensures that modern shamings, while obviously milder in severity, can far exceed the scope of the scarlet letter, the most extreme manifestation of which was at least branded on the chest, where it could be covered. Every modern system of punishment attempts to deal in proportionalities. Put simply, the punishment must fit the crime.

Finally, the angry mob problem. Unlike institutionalized forms of punishment, public shaming can spiral out of control, far beyond the imaginations of the media outlets who performed the initial exposure. Vigilante justice is a tricky thing, with online anonymity leading to harsher consequences from a host of far-flung strangers exercising psychopathic levels of schadenfreude. Whose norms are we to enforce? Would Jezebel’s writers be comfortable knowing that the tactics it employed against racist teenagers have been used against abortion doctors?

The rise of the social web may be perceived as a re-villaging, where the permanence of one’s digital footprint behaves as a deterrent, making it seem to some like an ideal time to reintroduce public shaming to reinforce norms. But considered through a historical lens, public shaming begins to look like a tool designed not to humanely punish the perp but rather to satisfy the crowd.

This explains its resurgence. When has the crowd ever been bigger, or more thirsty for vengeance? The faceless Internet, with its shadowy cyberbullies and infinite display of every social ill is scary. And when it slithers its tentacles in a person’s life, we become desperate for some way to fight back—to shine light into the darkness and counterattack those who would victimize behind the veil of anonymity. But doxing, even just naming publicly-available names to channel outrage (or worse) at someone who has violated your norms, is not only an ineffective way to deal, it risks causing more harm than the initial offense. Last year’s trendy rise of media-sponsored shaming is self-righteousness masquerading as social justice. In many cases the targets deserve to be exposed and more, but public shaming does not drive social progress. It might make us feel better, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we’ve made a positive difference.

ESPN just hired a noted critic as its new ombudsman. Read Dave Zirin’s interview on what’s next for sports media.

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