About That Public Shaming…

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Following last Tuesday’s election, a number of American teenagers took to Twitter and began spewing racist invectives against President Obama. Jezebel blogger Tracie Egan Morrissey found these tweets and, in the name of teaching a lesson about accountability, contacted the teens’ high schools and athletic directors. She then published a long article in which she posted the teens’ personal information alongside their offensive (and I mean offensive) tweets. Chris Menning of Modern Primate has some things to say about the story, most notably the fact that Jezebel unfairly implicated an innocent teen in their expose, acknowledged their mistake in an @-reply tweet, but did not issue an apology to Zoe Kimball, a long-suffering victim of trolling and online harassment, or address the fact that Jezebel’s editorial staff unceremoniously changed their header graphic after realizing what they had erroneously posted.

Setting aside the implications of sloppy journalistic practices (it’s called reverse Google image search, and it takes 30 seconds; that’s probably a good place to start when you decide to plaster some kid’s face front and center in an article accusing said kid of calling the President the N-word — at the very least, to see if there’s an Encyclopedia Dramatica article written about the target, as was the case with Zoe Kimball), and tabling the fact that the bigots in the Jezebel article are underage (I am not a developmental psychologist, do not know these kids, and can only speculate about whether or not any or all of them are mature enough to fully grasp the concept of “public” expression, or consequences generally), the Jezebel story poses another, and as far as I can tell, mostly unacknowledged problem — namely, the ways in which public shaming risks replacing one form of problematic online expression with another, and arguably worse, form of problematic online expression.

Some background: the implicit argument of the Jezebel article is that racism is alive and insidious as ever and that we need to do something, anything, to show that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated, and furthermore that you should watch what you say, because someone could be watching and go all Adrian Chen on your ass. As a friend of mine convincingly argued, Jezebel’s approach to racists can therefore be likened to a university’s zero-tolerance approach to smoking on campus (which is its own form of public shaming). These kinds of campaigns, whether anti-smoking or anti-racism, convey the message that THESE BEHAVIORS ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE, which ultimately (ideally) translates to behavioral change.

I don’t disagree with the basic premise that practice (“you’re not allowed to smoke here, because it’s a public health hazard”) impacts ideas (“I don’t want to be a smoker anymore”). But in the case of shaming racists on the internet, at least in the context of the Jezebel article, I wonder if the message conveyed to those who have/would post racist messages online isn’t “you shouldn’t be racist” but rather “you shouldn’t be racist…under your real name.” A surprising percentage of Jezebel’s reader comments seem to (inadvertently) argue as much, and provide slight variations on the assertion-cum-justification that “look, the tweets were public, if you post this stuff publicly prepared to be publicly shamed!!!!” –as if the kids’ misstep was to post their bile under their real names, and not the bile-posting itself. This isn’t to say that commenters on Jezebel are somehow complicit in the kids’ racist statements, but that their reactions give other racist kids (and adults) a compelling reason to create pseudonymous accounts on Twitter or elsewhere.

My issue with the Jezebel article, then, isn’t that I think people have a “right” to be terrible on the internet. In fact if one more person starts bleating about how they have a right to say whatever they want on Twitter because of free speech, I will throw my computer in the toilet (YOU GUYS, THAT’S NOT HOW FREE SPEECH WORKS). But I am wary of the implicit (again, if inadvertent) incentivizing of anonymous racist expression. Because the thing about anonymity is, once someone becomes anonymous, you lose them. You can’t appeal to their better nature because you don’t know whose nature it is. You can’t remind them of the real world implications of their speech and behavior, and can’t force them to confront the repercussions of their actions, because where would you even start? By pushing the behaviors underground, you risk creating a whole new, and arguably worse (at least trickier to handle), beast. Furthermore, and ironically, the very possibility of online shaming comes under threat. After all, you can’t shame people who can’t be found, and who therefore can’t be held accountable.

This doesn’t mean I reject the idea of exposing bigots on the internet. I actually think that public online shaming, if done carefully, may prove to be a better and more effective alternative to various censorship measures, which are more problematic than they would be helpful. But public shaming poses its own set of problems — problems Tracie Egan Morrissey tripped over when she didn’t double and triple and quadruple check to make sure the minors she was shaming weren’t themselves victims, as was Zoe Kimball (because even if it turns out that shaming a group of racist 15 year-olds is worth it, and will ultimately reduce the overall frequency and ferocity of online racism, you had better be damn sure you’re shaming the RIGHT 15 year-olds). The difficulty of getting one’s facts straight isn’t the only complicating factor, as even the most well-intentioned attempt to expose existing bigots might just be a catalyst for emboldening groups of even bigger (and more smugly entitled) bigots.

In the end, then, my argument is that the jury is still out, and that we should think a bit more about the ethical trade-offs of vigilante justice before we decide that public shaming is the best way to deal with problematic online behaviors. It may be that shaming is our best option, but it might not be. It would, I think, be best to proceed with caution.

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