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Danger: Explosive Tweets

In this article, Stephanie Jesper explores public shaming culture and the permanence of online content.
An exploding wine glass full of buttons and letters
© University of York (author: Stephanie Jesper)

The web is surprisingly indelible. Webpages might die as years go on, but morsels can still linger in web archives and search engine caches. Newspaper appearances, staff profiles, publications, registries, social media activity… you will have left your mark in some small way.

We’ve little control over much of this ‘digital footprint’, but we can control the information we publish ourselves. We’ve looked this week at how easy (and compelling) it is to give away information on social media. But the permanence of that content is another concern. Indeed, it’s a potential reputational risk. Surveys suggest that between 40% and 80% of recruiters check candidates’ online presence. In most cases the risk is probably small: often just locking your account down for a bit will suffice. But in high-profile areas of public life, your previous online utterances will be pored over exhaustively, and things you said in the past may well come back to haunt you – as, for that matter, can things you say in the present. And it’s not just the famous, powerful and jobseeking who need to be careful. We can all have our fifteen minutes of internet infamy…

There’s lots of reasons why what we post online might get us into trouble. The conversational nature of online discourse makes it all the easier to say something that turns out to be damagingly controversial, or even illegal. The sort of things we might say with little risk in offline social spaces become far more volatile when published to the whole web for anyone to read.

Public shaming and the mob

There’s an old mantra of the internet, the more polite version of which goes “don’t be a jerk”. As the Wikimedia community’s essay on this topic puts it:

Being right about an issue does not mean you’re behaving properly! Jerks are often right — but they’re still jerks… This is not the same as just being uncivil or impolite (though incivility and rudeness often accompany it). One can be perfectly civil and follow every rule of etiquette and still be wrong… Truly being civil and polite means that you show respect for others (such as in not needlessly pointing out grammar issues), even when right. Respect others even when you disagree.
When someone is wrong on the internet, you may feel duty-bound to call it out. But how many others felt that call of duty? If you post something online you have to be prepared for responses beyond “Like” or “Favourite”. And if you take a controversial position in a public forum you may have to defend that point. The problems start occurring if that point reaches an audience beyond your original intentions: if it goes viral.
Jon Ronson’s 2015 book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” tackles the topic of online shaming – the mob mentality that can hit places like Twitter or Facebook when an opprobrious post starts getting shared beyond its original audience – and the often devastating consequences for the original poster. The technique can be used against people engaged in criminal behaviour, as a means of exacting justice: in her 2015 book, “Is Shame Necessary? New uses for an Old Tool”, Jennifer Jacquet proposes the use of shaming for:
“Transgressions that have a clear impact on broader society – like environmental pollution – and transgressions for which there is no obvious formal route to punishment” – Jennifer Jacquet interviewed for The Observer.

She suggests, as a rule-of-thumb, to “go after groups”, although she doesn’t exempt individuals who are “politically powerful” or who “sizeably impact society”, so long as “punishment is proportional”. There, though, lies the problem: how can you determine proportionality? How can you judge what’s an appropriate response? In short, how do you not be a jerk?

In this TED talk, Jon Ronson discusses two (in some cases quite sweary) examples of where online shaming may have over-stepped the appropriate bounds of social justice. It’s staggering how a single misjudged attempt at irony on Twitter can explode into a tirade of abuse from well-meaning people: abuse that grows into a frenzy and demands that the tweeter lose her job, which she ultimately does. There’s a couple more cases here:

Perhaps your ill-considered comment deserves a rebuking tweet; but does it genuinely deserve having your livelihood destroyed?

Ultimately, we must be careful not only about what we post, lest it get out of control or come back to haunt us, but also about how we react to the posts of others. We need to consider other people’s wellbeing as well as our own. Next week we’ll look in more depth at how to look after our own and others’ wellbeing on social media and beyond.

© University of York (author: Stephanie Jesper)
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