Bioethics Blogs

How to Criticize on the Internet: What Shame Teaches us about Online Harassment

Participating in that great experiment of the internet—social media in particular—runs some risks; an emotional tweet, a late-night blog entry, or a Facebook post after a couple of pints can not only get you into trouble with friends and family, but at times, even cost you your job and bring world-wide notoriety. Justine Sacco is probably the most famous case. Before boarding an airplane to South Africa, she tweeted what one could describe either as a misfired, ill-calculated joke or as an outright racist joke to her 170 followers on twitter. When she landed, she was trending at number one worldwide on twitter, people were openly harassing her, and among many things, wishing her to be fired from her job; a wish that her company granted. Even worse were the emotional consequences of the incident. Sacco states that “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours. It was incredibly traumatic”. Jon Ronson wrote an article about this case and later a book called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, portraying people who suffered from online harassment. In it, he also writes about Monica Lewinsky, who describes herself as the first victim of online shaming. Lewinsky talked about severe suicidal tendencies in the aftermath of her affair; her mother made her shower with an open bathroom door out of fear of what she might do. Why does online harassment have such devastating consequences?

The word shame is at the core of the problem, and reappears in terms such as “online shaming” or “cyber shaming”. Shame and guilt are the two cardinal moral emotions signifying that we have failed to live up to our own moral standards; both emotions give immediate feedback or “internal punishment” for our transgressions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.