One of the headlines this week at our business school is the public shaming of one person. What was intended to be a “lighthearted joke” against an ethnic group has now turned into a hailstorm of insults against the author of the joke, with several people sharing screenshots of the person’s email all over social media. As a friend of the author and as someone who truly understands his character, I am in an awkward position. I want to support him against this public shaming, yet I want to distance myself from the comments, as they were truly not considerate and were offensive. What got me thinking in this process, however, was that what is the effect of public shaming on social media?
Laura Hudson from Wired magazine eloquently summarizes the effects of public shaming on social media:
“At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible.”
Social Media is a powerful tool that has given the average person power that they have never had before. If we feel that we are being treated unfairly or someone has done something reprehensible, we have the power to post it on a public forum and let the person’s action be judged in the court of public opinion.
Can this power be abused? When does the punishment fit the crime and how and who are we to judge it? Should Britt McHenry lose her job because she ranted against a tow truck employee in her private life? Possibly. Should Justine Sacco have gotten fired over her tweet about getting AIDS while on a routine trip to Africa? Possibly. These are extreme examples where the court of public opinion rightly asserts that it does not tolerate such behavior. But it is also scary to think that any minor mishap or wrong interpretation now has the potential to blow up and with dire consequences.
Rule #1: Don’t be a jerk. Rule #2 (and increasing in prominence): Watch what you say.