How the Internet Perfected the ‘Mob Mentality’

Public shaming has taken the journey from the thief in the stocks to the humble tweet. Social media has reignited the old flame of shaming as a punishment, but there’s a reason it was abandoned in the first place. Sure the person might have done something wrong, but that doesn’t demand an outcry so harsh they never get their life back. What we must understand is, there’s a price to shame.

After more than a decade of staying silent Monica Lewinsky spoke at a TED Talk on her experience as a victim of public shaming asking, “Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?”. Unsurprisingly, few, if any, of the audience raised their hands. Lewinsky was the first to learn how humiliating the internet could be, dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital spotlight.

Before the internet, these transgressions, these times where common sense was lacking, were privy only to the communities in which they happened. Newspapers, TV, radio might pick up on it if it were particularly bad, but there were rules. Social media, and the internet in general, has put peoples’ lives under a microscope. The sheer number of people on the internet allows individuals to become famous overnight, for all the wrong reasons.

Nearly a year ago Jon Ronson wrote an article in The New York Times on public shaming. He wrote about Justine Sacco, a PR director, who had a lapse in judgment when sending out a tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) while waiting in Heathrow to catch a plane to Cape Town. The backlash was catastrophic. The internet had grabbed hold of this moment and made sure it would ruin her life.

Daily we are forced to make decisions, and we hope what we choose is best. Many times it is, but there are times when our lack of judgement gets the better of us and we fall victim to it. We suffer the consequences. But what happens when a mob asks for us to suffer more, to feel worse than we do? I would wager a guess that the grand majority of people who make mistakes realize it after the fact and want to make up for it. A few might be genuinely bad people, but the rest are ordinary people like you or me, and deserve to be seen not as monsters but as people who have fallen victim to bad decision making.

In another article from The New York Times, this one by Jessica Bennett, Lewinsky is quoted as saying “anybody who has gone through any kind of trauma knows it doesn’t just go away with a snap of the fingers. It lives as an echo in your life.” What must be realized, and what I believe is the reason for her stepping up after all this time, is that these people we shame are humans just like the rest of us.

It’s not the fault of social media that public shaming exists; it’s been around for centuries, since the beginning of man. But our modern age has brought it to the forefront, into the spotlight. Perhaps social media, and the internet in general, has acted as a way to magnify humanity: its successes and faults. And to find a solution we may have to look deep into our own minds, into why we do what we do, to find an answer to the problem of our mob mentality.

Perhaps some shame is necessary. Our lives would be incomplete without it. It’s what makes us human, after all. But it can get out of hand, and that’s uncalled for. There’s no question that life has its peaks and valleys. It’s no flat plain–life would be rather boring that way. There are times were snark is necessary, to bring people back into line, to keep a semblance of society among us, and the internet is known to be a snarky place. But that shouldn’t be off-putting. There should be room for the internet to loose some of its edge and be made as a whole a more compassionate place. It would bring more people together, and in time I’m sure the edge will fade away, because as with all new communities, the internet and its distinctive social media platforms will settle into their own as communities which build people up, rather than tear them down.

It’s not that these communities will become more accepting, or that racist, sexist, or otherwise threatening remarks will become the norm, but that these places will become communities, not mobs shouting into the void. Perhaps it’s cliche to say that time heals all wounds, but I think that with time we can come to an agreement as to what role social media should play in shaping our current history and its up to us to make that change.

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