Understanding Online Shaming: What is It & is It Legal? Featured Image

Understanding Online Shaming: What is It & is It Legal?

Public humiliation or public shaming is a form of punishment. Its purpose is to dishonor or disgrace a person in a public way, and it can have disastrous consequences for both individuals and businesses. Online shaming is the digital form of public shaming that emerged with the rise of the internet, through which victims are shamed and humiliated online.

Common examples of online shaming and call-out culture include:

  1. Public call-outs and cancellations;
  2. Doxxing;
  3. Negative online business reviews;
  4. Revenge porn (also known as nonconsensual pornography).

Perhaps you’ve seen this when someone posts a call-out on your social media timeline or shares an embarrassing photo with humiliating comments. At Minc Law, our practice is dedicated to stopping online harassment as quickly as possible and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.

In this article, we will dive into the following topics:

  • The history of public shaming;
  • Dangers of internet shaming;
  • Reasons to avoid publicly shaming someone online;
  • The legality of publicly shaming someone on the internet;
  • How to avoid being publicly shamed.

History of Public Shaming

Public shaming is not a new concept; in fact, it spans centuries of history.

The Romans used crucifixion as a way to publicly humiliate someone before their death sentence was carried out. And for centuries in China, criminals were placed in cages and displayed in front of city gates. This treatment publicly shamed them while educating onlookers about the consequences of bad behavior.

In Colonial America, pillories or stocks (restraining devices used as a form of corporal punishment) were a common form of public humiliation and shaming. They were usually placed in the town square to put criminals on display.

Many of these public humiliation and shaming tactics are now considered cruel and unusual punishment and are no longer used; however, the trend of public shaming has far from ended.

For more recent examples of public shaming, look no further than Monica Lewinsky, the intern who had an affair with then-President Bill Clinton — or Steven Bartman, who attempted to catch a foul ball during the 2003 National League Championship baseball game (which some fans argue the incident cost the Cubs the win and the championship). Both were publicly shamed, ostracized, humiliated, threatened, bullied, and in Monica’s case, “slut-shamed.”

Common Online Shaming Examples: What Does Online Shaming Look Like Now?

While modern culture does not usually turn to physical forms of public shaming, we have developed comparably cruel shaming tactics that put modern technology to use: namely, the internet.

Call-Outs & Cancellation

Call-outs and cancellations are the most well-known form of online public shaming and online abuse. They cast someone out of social or professional circles on social media.

To “cancel” someone means to stop giving support to that person or to boycott their work because that person has acted or spoken in a questionable or inappropriate manner.


Doxing (or doxxing) someone is the act of releasing or broadcasting personally-identifiable information about them with the intention of harming that person.

Common types of information that may be released include someone’s address, phone number, credit card information, workplace, or school.

Negative Online Reviews

Review platforms such as Google, Yelp, or Glassdoor that host user-generated content can also be used to publicly shame someone or a business. Individuals often use these platforms to punish or shame a business that they had a disagreement with or do not like.

Revenge Porn

Revenge porn is defined as the distribution without consent of sexual material, such as videos or images, to humiliate someone. Revenge porn is often distributed by ex-partners, ex-lovers, or hackers.

Revenge Porn Removal Tip: If someone is distributing your images without consent, the top three ways to get the images removed from the internet are to (1) send a DMCA takedown notice, (2) report the intimate or explicit image to the hosting platform and/or search engines, or (3) hire a content removal professional or revenge porn lawyer.

Dangers of Public Shaming

In the words of Monica Lewinsky, “Public shaming is a blood sport that has to stop”. There are many dangers and consequences of public online shaming. Below, we discuss these dangers in greater detail.


If someone uploaded a picture of you with a nasty comment to social media, would you call that public shaming, cyberbullying, or both? If the goal is to humiliate, shame, or hurt someone, most can argue that it would qualify as cyberbullying.

One could argue that online shaming and cyberbullying are the same, and there is no distinction between the two. But unfortunately, it seems that public shaming is accepted by the public while cyberbullying is not.

For more information on cyberbullying and how you can fight back, make sure to read our blog post ‘How to Prevent Cyberbullying’.

Public shaming is not okay in the same way that cyberbullying is not okay.

Because shame is not a constructive emotion, public shaming should never be used to correct behavior or point out faults in others. While it may feel good to call out people who hold repugnant views or act immorally, causing them to feel shame is not likely going to make them change.

In all likelihood, public shaming will either damage that individual psychologically or cause them to become more entrenched in their views and behaviors out of defensiveness. It is better to engage in meaningful, constructive conversation than to try to shame them.

Losing Jobs & Damaging Reputations

There are countless examples of public shaming resulting in loss of jobs or income and damaging people’s reputations. And these things are not only happening to those being shamed; the ones who are doing the shaming often face negative consequences, too!

For example, Adria Richards was attending a conference when she overheard two gentlemen making sexual jokes. She decided to snap a picture of them and “shame” them on Twitter for making inappropriate comments. The men were escorted out of the conference.

Then, internet mobs attacked all parties involved. One of the men in Richards’ picture was fired from his job. And in a surprising twist, Adria Richards was fired from her position, as well. The situation spiraled out of control, all because an online shaming post went wrong.

Giving People the Wrong Impression of You

Think about the impression you are giving people if you are willing to insult someone for what they may believe is activism. This “call-out” will be attached to your “digital resume” as well, and it may give others the wrong impression about you and what you stand for.

As discussed above, you could be accused of cyberbullying someone as well.

Being Sued For Public Shaming

The last danger (and the topic of this article) comes down to the question of whether publicly shaming someone online is legal or not.

The bottom line: You could be sued for publicly shaming someone online. Read on below for more details.

Reasons to Avoid Publicly Shaming Someone Online

In addition to the dangers of public shaming above, we have compiled a few additional reasons why you should avoid publicly shaming someone on social media and the internet.

  • Shaming someone online does not actually stop or fix the problem.
  • Shaming only gives you a temporary outlet or vindication, but it does not offer a long-term solution.
  • Shaming someone on the internet can give them severe mental health issues, such as anxiety, mental distress, PTSD, eating disorders, self-harm, death threats, and much more. In some cases, it can even lead to suicide.
  • Shaming someone online could lead to “counter-shaming,” meaning the person you shamed or other online users could attack or shame you as well.
  • Shaming someone could give you feelings of guilt or regret if the shaming backfires. The person’s reputation could be ruined or they could be injured in some way due to the public shaming post that you created.

Online Defamation Fact: Truth is a defense to defamation. Not only can individual defendants defend themselves by claiming their statements were true, but news publications often rely on the defense of truth. While some news publications will modify minor inaccuracies, they will rarely remove substantially truthful content.

Target of online shaming?

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Is Publicly Shaming Someone on the Internet Legal? Legal Recourse if You Are Being Shamed on the Internet

In short, the answer is that yes, online public shaming is legal. However, there are many exceptions to this generalization, such as:

  • Civil legal liability,
  • Cyberbullying laws,
  • Revenge porn laws.

Civil Legal Liability

Whether it is a post on your social media page or an online review of a business, once something is on the internet, it cannot be taken back.

There could be legal consequences to your post if it is not accurate, posts private information, or harasses someone. The last thing you want to do is open yourself up to legal liability and a possible defamation lawsuit by the person or business that you posted about.

There is a fine line between freedom of speech and defamation. Here are some possible claims you could be sued under for publicly shaming someone:

  • Defamation – A post on Facebook or other social media platforms may be subject to a defamation action if what is posted is fabricated or not completely accurate.
  • Invasion of privacy – Someone can claim invasion of privacy (otherwise known as publication of private facts) if something is posted on social media without the person’s consent that reveals private, personal, or embarrassing information.
  • Breach of contract – You could be sued for breaching a contract, like one with your employer if you post to social media. Many companies have rules and policies about what employees can and cannot discuss online, including using their phones or social media while on the clock.

Civil Legal Liability Example: The “Shitty Media Men” List

The “Shitty Media Men” list was a Google document that went viral in late 2017. It identified men who were rumored to have engaged in sexual misconduct in the New York media world. The sole purpose of the document was to call out and publicly shame these men.

Moira Donegan, a former assistant editor at The New Republic, created and circulated the list. The list was active and circulated for about 12 hours before Donegan took it down. A federal lawsuit was filed in 2018 by Stephen Elliott, one of the 70 men listed on the document, for $1.5 million in damages against Moira Donegan and other John Does. As of the date of this article, that lawsuit is still pending.

Cyberbullying Laws

Some states have laws in place that focus on cyberbullying and online harassment. These laws and the ways offenses are charged differ between states.

If you publicly shame someone online, you could be charged criminally or sued civilly for your actions.

Examples of Cyberbullying Criminal Laws

Missouri’s laws define bullying and cyberbullying as “through the transmission of a communication including, but not limited to, a message, text, sound, or image by means of an electronic device.” Bullying and cyberbullying is considered a Class A misdemeanor in Missouri but can become a Class D felony if the victim is 17 years or younger and the defendant is 21 years or older.

In California, on the other hand, the use of technology to cause someone to fear for their life is a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine up to $1,000.

Example of Cyberbullying Civil Lawsuit

A woman in Alabama was awarded $10,000 in damages after she filed a cyberbullying lawsuit against two women who made defamatory statements about her on Facebook that caused the plaintiff mental distress to the point where she needed to seek treatment.

Revenge Porn Laws

Revenge porn laws are still relatively new and continuing to develop. However, as of 2020, 41 states and the District of Columbia have specific laws that outlaw the distribution of revenge porn.

If you send out, distribute, or post a picture or video that is considered sexual in nature without that party’s consent, you could be prosecuted or sued under these laws.

Examples of Revenge Porn Laws

In Pennsylvania, if you post a sexually-explicit image with the intent to cause harm and without the consent of the victim, you could face up to a $5,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

In New Jersey, if you make a non-consensual video recording that shows someone’s “intimate parts” or shows the person engaging in a non-consensual sexual act, you could be looking at a felony charge and up to 3-5 years in prison in addition to a $15,000 fine.

Example of Revenge Porn Lawsuit

After a California woman and her boyfriend broke up in 2013, he began posting her intimate photos to pornography and revenge porn websites without her consent. He vowed to make her life miserable.

Strangers started to text and harass the woman after seeing her content online. She feared for her life, so she hired a law firm to file a lawsuit in the US District Court of California against her ex-boyfriend. Four years later, she was awarded a $6.4 million judgment, one of the biggest awards in a revenge porn lawsuit.

Minc Law Tip: Rather than stooping to online shaming, try taking another (more constructive) approach. Depending on the severity of the actions of the person you are tempted to shame, try one of the following: (1) confronting that person privately, (2) taking the high road by not responding at all, or (3) taking legal action against the person.

How You Can Avoid Being the Target of Public Shaming on the Internet

“We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.” – Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Camera phones are everywhere, so the chances of someone whipping out their phone and snapping a photo or recording a video of you arguing in public — or getting into an altercation with someone — are very high.

Therefore, now more than ever, you should be sure to protect yourself by remembering the following tips:

  • Be mindful that there is virtually no privacy in public spaces;
  • Be self-aware of your actions and behavior;
  • If a situation is getting heated, walk away and cool off;
  • Follow the Golden Rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

There is an ever-growing world of possible observers with various recording devices all around you. The best option to avoid becoming the target of online public shaming is to remain aware of your surroundings.

Avoid doing or saying things in public that you would not be comfortable sharing with others.

Internet Shaming: Technically Legal, But It Comes With Consequences For All

The experience of being shamed can come with disastrous side effects. The person being shamed may face psychological devastation, death threats, or lose their job over the incident. The person doing the shaming may also face retaliation and negative consequences in their own life — including a civil or criminal lawsuit, in some cases.

That is why it is the best policy never to engage in publicly shaming others online. There are much more constructive and helpful ways to convince others to change their behavior or viewpoints, without engaging in childish and destructive shaming tactics.

And if you want to avoid being publicly shamed, practice acting as though someone has their camera pointed directly at you when you are in a public space. Treat others the way you want to be treated, and always behave in a way in which you would not mind seeing yourself behave on live television.

But despite our best efforts, sometimes others will still try to paint us in a negative light online. If you have been publicly shamed online and you need help, contact our office at 216-373-7706, message one of our dedicated intake specialists for more information, or chat with one of our Chat representatives now.



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