Recently, celebrities were called out for wasting water on social media in drought-stricken California. The trend, #DroughtShaming, shamed celebrities like musician Jennifer Lopez and actress Barbra Streisand. Even actor Sean Penn, who people widely regard as a champion for liberal causes, kept his own lawn green despite the call to save water. California Governor Jerry Brown called for a mandatory cut in water usage, making these celebrities appear to be above the law to angered social media users.
The trend of public shaming on social media has been around as long as social media itself. If one remembers the saying, “Every action has a consequence,” the consequences are significantly amplified on social media. There are no shortage of stories about people who have been shamed on social media. Some have lost their jobs as a result of public shaming on social media, and the volatile and unpredictable nature of the Internet has even led to death threats. However, one must ask whether or not it is effective in preventing future social media gaffes.
Many psychologists subscribe to the philosophy that “past behavior is a predictor of future behavior,” which may indicate that someone who has been shamed on social media for their actions before is likely to commit the same actions and be shamed again. In 2013, public relations executive Justine Sacco was fired for a derogatory tweet regarding AIDS in Africa. Although she apologized for her actions, she was still widely slammed by social media users.
Did Justine learn from her mistake? According to this 2015 New York Times article, Sacco was able to find employment right away, but turned it down to work in the most unlikely of places: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She volunteered to do public relations for an NGO that was working to reduce maternal mortality rates in the country. She then found work with Hot or Not as a marketing and promotion director.
According to Jon Ronson, who penned the article updating viewers on Sacco’s life, “Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers,” he said.
The global outrage at Sacco’s tweet caused her to be more careful about what she posted on social media. Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was also publicly shamed before the rise of social media for her alleged affair with then-President Bill Clinton in 1998. Lewinsky, now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has kept somewhat of a low profile since the incident. In a recent Huffington Post article, she stressed that before one shames someone on social media, they have to understand the context of their post.
“What’s happened with the Internet is that we lose context for a story, but mainly we lose context for a person,” Lewinsky said. “This is someone’s daughter. This is someone’s sister. This is somebody that has a sense of humor that might be different from mine. This is someone who has a long range of life experiences, which inform how they themselves, view the world, or how they articulate themselves.”
Is public shaming on social media effective in preventing future social media gaffes? It could be if someone has done something horrible, and if they realize their mistakes. However, many people go about shaming for all the wrong reasons. Although it could cause people to change their behavior, the change needs to come from the person, rather than arise because of demands from a large Internet mob. Another saying to keep in mind, “the end doesn’t justify the means.”