Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Stocks of Social Media

Public shaming used to be popular. Then it wasn’t. People realised it was too cruel. In 1787 Benjamin Rush, (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) called for the pillory to be abolished as a punishment. He wrote, “Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death”. This may have been an exaggeration, but it can’t have been an overly ridiculous one. Pillories and public whippings were abolished as forms of punishment in England in 1837 and in America in 1839, while capital punishment was only abolished in the middle of the 20th century.

It was widely considered that it wasn’t the physical pain that was so cruel, but the public humiliation. Physical punishment caused temporary pain but punitive shaming could last a lifetime in a close community. An 1867 editorial in The Times read “If [the convicted person] had previously existing in his bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. . . . The boy of 18 who is whipped at New Castle for larceny is in nine cases out of 10 ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”

Yet today public shaming is making a comeback. It is so easy to do, after all. Once you had to  wander down to the public square to join the mass of people gathered there to participate. Now, you need only retweet from your phone. Some people put a bit more effort in. Their ancestors may have brought rotten fruits to the public square, nowadays their weapons are private information, dragged out and made public, like names, addresses, photographs.

As Jon Ronson writes in his New York Times article highlighting victims of our modern pillory, “Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so.” (

Some of us may choose to believe that these victims had it coming. We may not know or care about the awful consequences of such a seemingly harmless action as joining the back of a growing crowd. Or whatever the consequences, perhaps the victim had it coming. They brought hate and destruction upon themselves, perhaps, ironically, as a result of publically shaming someone else.

But do we not often pride ourselves, in the west, on our civilized behaviour and our advanced legal system? How do we reconcile that with our glee at the latest public shaming?  Of Justine Sacco, Adria Richards, Christopher Jeffries, and the rest. Is our vaunted civilization only skin deep, if that?