Shame On You, Shame On Me, Shame Online

There’s a duality of shame in our Internet culture, a duality that reveals both traditional victims and traditional perpetrators. While cyberbullying targeted at girls and women’s via revenge porn approximates hate crime status, online shaming headlines parallels the usage of humiliation, only targeted at public figures, as a legitimate form of social exchange. These two contradictory forms of social justice seem to be in a battle to use Internet technologies in order to arrive at a new sort of social norms. 

The activity of sharing private information in the online public is, in itself, ethically ambiguous. That is, it can be interpreted as a cry for justice or an unfounded, digitally violent action; it’s no wonder that people who may not have a history of psychopathy become the victim–either wrongful initiator or target–of online shaming. 

What we’ve learned in the dichotomy between public and private spheres from which we have contend for a lionized collective common is that maybe it wouldn’t necessarily be that great. In the United States, where the tradition of the commons has often been mourned in comparison to a European collectivity, we see that the sheer existence of a commons isn’t the sole entity of a desired social or political voice. Collectivity, in basic quantitative terms, appeals to certain political models. In the digital commons this is complicated to equate to collective voices that a site and their community have been structured to engender. But was there ever a commons that functioned differently from another commons? Could shaming occur without collectivity? Does the size of an online community effect the impact of a shame campaign? How did shaming occur in the commons prior to the cyberscape?

Another element of online shaming is the uneven disclosure of the Real, either in content or identity. Ridicule is aimed at what someone may believe that others hold to be untrue. Implicit in the urge to correct a fact or person is that information, specifically online, should approximate truth. The Internet is neither fiction nor fiction, but the presumed unbiased voice of the documentary. This is perhaps the least troublesome of an impulse that, when applied to doxing, the disclosure of true identities, culminates in real world consequences, or at least intends to, such as physical harm or psychological discomfort. 

In both collective targeting against a user and doxing there is a recollection to early Western forms of punishment. The tarred and feathered. The stripping of honor. The pillories. These are the forms of punishment that much of society as moved away from in daily jurisprudence but aptly approach in the digital context. Is our digital weapons a reaction to failed legal structures that don’t meet our sense of justice, or are we just clumsy with the lack of responsibility that we have online?

Politicking shame and humiliation have been popular tools of journalists, politicians and citizens. Mobilizing scandals have been our society’s version of assassinating the emperor (that’s a metaphor that makes one wonder whether Roman emperors were immune to scandals, whether scandals were allowed and if not, why they are allowed, even necessitated today). And when a public figure in a position of power isn’t swayed by directed scandal we think of them as immune to populous, or agents of impunity, even if the scandal isn’t necessarily illegal. 

While political muckraking aims to destabilize an individual or party’s power, shaming aims to encourage normality and conformity. Again, the norms to which the humiliated are expected to adapt are contingent on the community in which the humiliation is occurring. 

While humiliation isn’t isolated to humor online, I’m surprised how much comedy is based on humiliation, that is how often we’re encouraged to laugh at someone rather than with someone. I’ve long enjoyed the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, but both are primarily based on humiliation tactics. Ironically, Trevor Noah was himself a target of shaming for tweets in the transition period following John Stewart, even though they predated his move to Comedy Central. Juxtaposed with Stewart’s equally unpopular replacement of Craig Kilborn, I wonder how much shaming has grown in the last two decades. Last Week Tonight’s entire format can be described as such: a selected topic is presented as an exposé; individual people or corporations are named, juvenile comedic tangents and simile’s are sprinkled between otherwise heavy points and the show closes a political call for action. The humor between the lines is that a show that isn’t really journalism expects to 1) convince their audience who knows it’s not real new that this issue is important so that/and 2) the audience will dedicate time and energy to take up that call for action, at least before the next week’s episode. Both the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight are more reminiscent of proto-propaganda than actual news agencies that adapted the technique more than a century ago. 

How humiliation and shaming integrates into the topics of news, politics and sociality is the divisive outcome in audience formatted media. While critiquing someone or some idea may be motivated to assert truth over falsehood, when aimed at individual and/or identities, the effect is alienation of that individual or perspective from an audience. These mediated critiques are not neighborhood interventions. No one being ostracized is staying tuned in. And they don’ have to. Ridicule isolates; dialogue congregates. If we apply this rational to broadcast news networks and media outlets specifically, too often we see single-sided interpretations of information rather than dialogue and comparison. The minority programs that represent more than one social or political perspective are deemed “centered” or “moderate” in the political sense, even if the guests are talking passed each other and not with each other. As a format, broadcast news and relating of world events has a history of oppositional positioning: Democracy Now in response to Fox News; Brietbart in response to Al Jazeera. MSNBC in response to Crossfire. Not that any of these really grew directly in reponse to the other, necessarily. These misleading origin stories are less important than the near categorical opposites these entities occupy. 

The result of polarized media outlets is a homogeneous audience; an effect that in the social media context has already been concerning to socialists who found that users tend to connect with like-opinioned users, indifferent to their familial or real-world social networks.