Shaming Sexists and Racists Online as a Form of Justice?

Image- Rochelle, just rochelle via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Earlier this year, tech consultant Adria Richards was attending a programming conference when she overheard two male developers make what she considered to be sexist comments. She tweeted a photo of the men to call them out, and sparked what would come to be known as “Donglegate.” As a result of Richards’ tweet, one of the developers lost his job, as did Richards. Meanwhile, blogs, Twitter streams, and comment sections discussed the affair with language that was frequently obscene in its hatred, nastiness, and vitriol. I’ve already written about that fiasco at length, but “Donglegate” remains a stark reminder of the power that social media can unleash, for better or worse.

And, as Wired‘s Laura Hudson points out, it also remains a stark reminder of the tricky and troublesome power dynamics that are at play in social media. In an excellent article titled “Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media,” Hudson discusses the phenomena of online shaming, and considers several instances (including “Donglegate”) where people called out others online in order to shame them, and the unpredictable and questionable results that ensued. She writes (emphasis mine):

Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods. But the question of who’s responsible for the destruction — the person engaging in the behavior or the person revealing it — depends on whom you ask. At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible.

The fundamental problem is that many shamers, like Richards, don’t fully grasp the power of the medium. It’s a problem that lots of us need to reckon with: There are millions of Twitter accounts with more than 1,000 followers, and millions on Facebook with more than 500 friends. The owners of those accounts might think they’re just regular people, whispering to a small social circle. But in fact they’re talking through megaphones that can easily be turned up to a volume the entire world can hear.

Increasingly, our failure to grasp our online power has become a liability — personally, professionally, and morally. We need to think twice before we unleash it.

I’ve previously written about the “online disinhibition effect” as a popular explanation for the vitriol that we often see online: basically, because the people we communicate with (or about) online are not in close physical proximity, we feel much freer and less inhibited in our language and actions. We feel like we can get away with more, that there won’t be any repercussions for saying or doing things we’d never consider if the object of our communication was right in front of us.

This effect is often used to explain the racism, sexism, etc., that are all too prevalent online — i.e., it’s easier to call someone a “slut” or a racial epithet when they’re not there beside you — but it cuts both ways. It can also explain why those setting out to shame bullies, racists, and others for legitimately disturbing language may not give much thought, in their quest for justice, to the ramifications of their own strong words.

As one possible example, Hudson mentions a Jezebel article (presumably this one) that sought to shame high school students who had tweeted racist comments about Obama following the 2012 election. In addition to naming them, Jezebel contacted officials at the students’ schools, and attached their names to specific search terms, creating possible search-related headaches for the students in the future. All of which caused Hudson to ask:

Yes, what these kids wrote was reprehensible. But does a 16-year-old making crude comments to his friends deserve to be pilloried with a doggedness we typically reserve for politicians and public figures — or, at the very least, for adults?

This is all tricky emotional and moral territory to navigate. On the one hand, we should react with sadness and anger while scrolling through @EverydaySexism, while reading about the casual indifference that surrounds and promotes rape culture, or while reading vitriolic and hate-filled comments that were posted with little-to-no thought given regarding their effect. I know that I was heartened to read about social media efforts to unmask and shame sexual predators on Reddit. And I don’t think it was wrong to not exactly be torn up when Ma’Lik Richmond mourned that his life was over after his sins had found him out (due, in large part, to activists spreading the word about his terrible deeds on social media). As Hudson writes, in cases like these, social media can serve a powerful role in publicizing “injustices that might otherwise remain invisible.”

But on the other hand, Nietzsche’s famous words “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster” seem rather apropos. In our pursuit to call out others for dangerous and demeaning language, are we employing similar tactics, only with what seems like a righteous sheen? Are we trying to speak prophetically when we “bypass the gatekeepers of power” to bring light to injustice, or are we simply picking easy targets — and let’s face it, racists, sexists, et al., make very easy targets, indeed — on which to unleash our “holier” brand of vitriol?

Do we want to see a 16-year-old who posts something obscene about our president’s ethnicity repent of her hateful, misguided views? Do we want to see somebody who writes demeaning things about women repent of his misogyny? Or do we simply want to see them mocked, ridiculed, and publicly humiliated by any means necessary? In our drive to punish bullies, are we ever in danger of becoming bullies ourselves? As Wired‘s Danah Boyd wrote back in 2012:

When someone’s been wronged — or the opportunity arises to use someone to make a statement — it is relatively easy to leverage social media to incite the hive mind to draw attention to an individual. The same tactic that trolls use to target people is the same tactic that people use to out trolls.

More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.

This raises serious moral and ethical concerns: In a networked society, who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie? This isn’t an easy question and it’s at the root of how we, as a society, conceptualize justice.

Because of the distributed, non-linear, non-proportional properties of online communications — and the fact that nothing we post online is ever as private or contained as we think it is — it is completely impossible for us to forecast the repercussions of our words, even if we intend those words to promote what we consider to be justice. It’s impossible to limit the ramifications of our words, or even how people interpret, frame, and use our words. And as such, we can never know the damage that might be done. This doesn’t mean that we should be paralyzed and never post anything that could, somehow, potentially shame someone for the bad behavior. There is a time and a place for calling people out, but it is a far graver, more serious act than we probably think it is.

As Hudson writes in a follow-up to her Wired piece:

People are always going to disagree about what warrants shaming, and I think those are good discussions, good disagreements to have. But I believe we can have better dialogue by considering online power dynamics. We can have more productive dialogue. And more importantly, we can have deliberate dialogue. We can communicate the things we mean to say, in the way we mean to say them, for the audiences we intend to receive them.

It doesn’t mean you don’t speak up. It doesn’t mean you don’t call people out. All it means, when you’re using social media, is that you should consider the power of the tool — or the potential weapon — you’re using before you pull the trigger.

Regardless of whether you have 100 followers on Twitter, or 100,000, this sort of thoughtfulness is a good policy to tweet by.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    So is “Hey Good Lookin’ ” a sexist song?

    I’m sorry. I had to know.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I’ll take that as a yes. ;-)

  • John Barba

    It’s a mad house


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