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On the Ethics of Online Shaming

Is online shaming just a new version of something that humans have always done, or is it substantially different now that the shaming is taking place via the Internet?

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Recently, a film critic and self-described fan of Amy Schumer tweeted a selfie with the comedian, accompanied by a (possibly offensive) joke. Schumer tweeted back a reply that was characterized by at least one media outlet as “shaming” the fan. A different media outlet, however, described the fan’s own action as “shaming.”

The dueling headlines read, “Amy Schumer Calls Out Twitter Troll for Slut-Shaming Joke” and “Amy Schumer Ridiculously Shames Kid for Doing an Amy Schumer Joke.” The latter article pointed out that the fan/troll/critic was 17 years old; the former noted that Schumer’s tweet “quickly made the rounds online, which prompted a ton of negative feedback for the film critic and praise for the comedian.”

Is online shaming just a new version of something that humans have always done, or is it substantially different, now that the shaming is taking place via the Internet? And, either way, is it the right thing to do?

Online shaming has been a hot topic over the last year. An entire book (“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed“) has already been written about it, and many articles have struggled to define it and analyze the phenomenon. Is it just a new version of something that humans have always done, or is it substantially different, now that the shaming is taking place via the Internet? And, either way, is it the right thing to do? Does the answer to that depend on the power differential between the “shamer” and the person or people being “shamed,” as several commentators have suggested? Does it depend on what triggered the shaming? Does it depend on what exactly “a ton of negative feedback” really means?

Perhaps one reason we are struggling with this phenomenon is that it presents an ethical dilemma, in which justice arguments are made on both sides. Some may see online shaming as a way of standing up for justice and equality, especially when powerful people say something mean or stupid and are socially shamed in response (“punching up at a category of smug, entitled, misogynist dudes,” as Caitlin Dewey put it in a Washington Post article describing a particular set of cases).

Others, however, may see it as inherently unethical because the shamer has no real control over the proportionality of the response: In many cases of online shaming, the effects seem to be disproportionate to the offense that set them off (when the shaming goes viral and then marks the person, both online and off, potentially forever) — and proportionality is a key part of a just response.

We might want to be the kind of people who stand up for ourselves or people we agree with — but do we want to be the kind of people who shame others, meting out (potentially disproportionate) vigilante justice?

Online shaming may also pose a conflict between justice concerns and virtue ethics. We might want to be the kind of people who stand up for ourselves or people we agree with — but do we want to be the kind of people who shame others, meting out (potentially disproportionate) vigilante justice? In fact, sometimes the people who start an online shaming “wave” later regret their actions. Regret, in this case, seems to be a recognition of the fact that their own actions didn’t match up with their values.

And the common good is involved, as well. We’ve decided, as a society, that public flogging and scarlet letters are not appropriate responses to wrongdoing. Why? Perhaps because we now believe that public shaming diminishes not just the person shamed, but all the people who are participating in it or observing it. As Jon Ronson, the author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” notes, “It’s so corrosive to create that kind of society.”

Even more than older types of public shaming, online shaming lacks context. It occurs, usually, not within an ongoing relationship between the people involved — and is therefore more likely to be triggered, unfairly, by misunderstandings. It also usually doesn’t offer those who are shamed the ability to either explain themselves or redeem themselves. And it is often hasty — a wave that grows out of individual drops of shame triggered by easy, spur-of-the-moment clicks of a button. The wave then crashes on someone’s head; explanations, apologies or other efforts to respond never go viral in the same way as the shaming; and the attention of the denizens of a particular Internet platform (and related media coverage) moves on.

The private/public platforms on which so many of us communicate these days play a part in this. They allow us to easily reach out to people we don’t know well (which means we may misread each other). At the same time, they often foster the impression that we’re communicating with “friends” — and (if only by virtue of the fact that we’re all sitting at our own computers, seemingly “private”) obscure the fact that those friends are themselves nodes in great networks, which can quickly and easily forward communications to other nodes.

What should we do, then? Do we just resign ourselves to others’ insults or threats online and do nothing, for fear of triggering a shaming wave? No — that would not be an ethical response, either.

The private/public platforms on which so many of us communicate these days play a part in this. They allow us to easily reach out to people we don’t know well (which means we may misread each other). At the same time, they often foster the impression that we’re communicating with “friends.”

One thing we might do is learn to modulate our responses better. We can take a bit longer to respond. We can try to respond less publicly, at least at first: Give people a chance to clarify, explain, recant or apologize — privately. In addition, if we’re not directly involved, we can also decide to let the wronged person respond, without feeling the need to jump in ourselves and magnify that response. And, even if we feel that public shaming is warranted sometimes, we could try to limit it to truly egregious cases (assessing whether the benefits would outweigh the “corrosive” effects on society).

Finally, as others have noted, we also need more forgiveness on the Internet. However much some people condemn the European efforts around the mistakenly dubbed “right to be forgotten,” the need for some kind of Internet forgetting is clear, too — and, as philosopher Luciano Floridi has noted, it’s very much related to forgiveness.

In the story about Amy Schumer and the unfortunate joke, as soon as the self-described fan realized that Schumer had not taken it in stride, he apologized. Schumer accepted his apology. But we haven’t yet figured out how to make forgiveness go viral.


Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Follow the Internet Ethics program @IEthics.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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