Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

All About Ethics Blog

Yik Yak

Yik Yak

Internet Shaming

How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life, a piece in the New York Times by Jon Ronson, piqued the interest of the Center’s Emerging Issues group this week, sparking a discussion of Internet shaming and proportionality.
Ronson interviewed several essentially private persons whose thoughtless racist or sexist comments online called down the wrath of the Twittersphere, resulting in their being fired from their jobs, losing friends, and in some cases being threatened with bodily harm.
A former shamer himself, Ronson writes,
[I]n those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.
In ethics terms, there was a lack of proportionality between the action and its consequence, at least as many members of the Emerging Issues group saw it.  Others, however, said that people using social media like Twitter have a responsibility to understand the platforms and the virality that is built into them.  When you publish something, you have to take the consequences, they argued.
There was a shared concern in the group about the effect of these shaming campaigns on discourse.  Particularly in a university setting like ours, will the severity of the consequences for saying something dumb chill the atmosphere for learning, which requires students to be willing to make mistakes?

Several members of the group pointed to long-standing social mores that might guide our online actions, preventing the original offensive comments and the subsequent piling on.  “Don’t gossip,” might be one of those, as well as the biblical injunction, “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” 


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