The Spectre of Online Shaming

In this fascinating and disturbing TED talk, Jon Ronson speaks about the dark side of internet mob mentality. It’s a sobering cautionary tale for anyone who spends a significant amount of time online. Like you, I too have felt the temptation to make snap judgments and rush to vilify.

It’s become a daily occurrence on the internet. One day the target is a veterinarian with a penchant for hunting cats, another day it’s a mild-mannered dentist on a hunting expedition in Zimbabwe. And let’s not forget the rampant misogyny and sexism that has made online spaces as inhospitable to women as many in the real world.

The internet brings out the natural human need for attention and recognition in us, and so we take to social media and post our own self-indulgent pleas for help. We bare our souls – warts and all – in the dim hope that we’ll find connection, meet a kindred spirit, anything to abate the mind-numbing alienation we feel. But this state of desperation makes us vulnerable to insidious temptation and adverse reactions.

Anonymity does strange things to us. Just as being under surveillance inherently changes the way we express ourselves and behave towards others, so too does anonymity bring out subtle variations in our behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable or abhorrent to us.

The questions to ask ourselves are these: if we were to find ourselves a witness to an act of bullying or harassment online, would we take the side of the attacker or the victim? Would we speak out in support of protecting the innocent until proven guilty? If not, what would be the threshold of sadistic abuse that would trigger us to respond? How likely are we to take the cowardly but easy road of silent acquiescence?

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