We live in a world where shaming people on the internet and cancel culture has become the norm. It is impossible nowadays to browse through our Facebook or Twitter feed without stumbling on a post about a “rude” waiter who “ruined” someone’s dining experience.
Or, more recently, a video showing an angry “Karen” who refuses to wear a mask, egging others to pile on and join in. With easy access to cameras and the internet on our devices, it is both easy and tempting to shame someone for inappropriate or unethical behavior.
The internet harassment lawyers of Minc Law field calls from thousands of victims of online shaming and internet harassment each year, and help hundreds of clients deal with the negative consequences. Having seen both sides of the issue, we would like to share some reasons you should think twice before shaming someone on the internet or social media.
Online shaming can lead to harsh consequences for the poster, the person being shamed, and others. Some of the serious consequences associated with online shaming include:
- Ruining reputations and careers;
- Causing severe psychological damage;
- Being targeted or shamed yourself; and
- Civil and criminal lawsuits.
In this article, we will discuss the (often unintended) consequences of online shaming and why it should be avoided. Then we will provide some alternatives to shaming – so people can feel heard without the dire consequences.
We will start by discussing common reasons people shame others, from individuals to businesses, and how social media has magnified the punishing consequences of public shaming.
Common Reasons for Online Shaming
Public shaming is not a new concept. Public humiliation and punishment are universal human behaviors that have occurred in society for ages. However, the advent of the internet and social media use to shame has taken this bad behavior to a whole different level. With online shaming people engage in social shaming at a much larger scale, in more organized ways, and acts of public punishment have greater consequences than ever to the people that are affected.
Before taking a look at all the potential negative consequences online social media shaming has on people who are shamed (and on the shamers themselves), it is helpful to understand the most common reasons why people engage in this behavior.
Below are some of the most prevalent reasons why we currently see people engage in shaming behavior.
Cheaters & Adulterers
As every ninth-grader who read The Scarlet Letter will confirm, sexual impropriety has long been a source of public shame. Today, entire websites “public shaming sites” (e.g. CheaterReport.com, ShesAHomewrecker.com, TagTheSponsor. NameAndShame.com) have devoted their corner of the internet to shaming those accused of infidelity.
To make matters worse, much of the content posted to cheater sites (like CheaterVille and ReportCheater) is intimate in nature – often depicting nude images or videos of the accused cheater. For many people, the personal nature of the content shared only amplifies the psychological damage of the shaming incident.
Much like the websites created solely to shame cheaters, websites have also been created to call out “deadbeats” that focus on behavior the shamer finds morally unacceptable. Websites like DeadbeatsExposed.com shame individuals for a variety of behavior from failure to pay child support to parents caught doing drugs.
The term, “John” has been a part of the American vocabulary for quite a bit longer than the much newer “Karen” label. If you are unfamiliar, “John” is a reference to a man caught soliciting prostitutes.
Like the sites that expose cheaters and deadbeats, websites like PredatorsAlerts.com exist as a place for shamers to vent about others’ socially unacceptable behavior.
Negative Business Reviews
Technically, the oldest complaint known to man is over 3,700 years old, made by the customer of a Babylonian copper merchant. That is right, complaints about poor service are nothing new.
But, sites designed solely for negative online complaints like RipoffReport.com, Scam.com, WhoScammedYou.com, and PissedConsumer.com provide a new outlet to vent about an age-old problem.
While ancient complaints may have rippled through a small community, today’s consumer complaints can be shared worldwide with just a few clicks – causing almost immeasurable damage.
Doxing is a pretty extreme invasion of privacy (publication of private facts) that has cropped up in recent years. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, doxing happens when someone shares your personal information on the internet. This could mean publicizing your real name, home address, telephone number, place of work (or even more private information).
Doxing is often a tool of internet vigilantes and hackers who want to subject someone they do not like to extreme harassment. Often, doxing victims are public figures or influencers, although it can happen to anyone.
The police blotter in the local newspaper used to be a ripe source for town gossip and shaming. Busybodies would scan the previous week’s arrests anxious to learn who in their community was “up to no good.”
While arrest records are public and often still reported in print media, the internet has made it much easier to share news of criminal behavior and shame the individuals who are accused of it. A whole web-based industry now exists making individuals pay to remove their image off of online mugshot websites.
Naturally, when information regarding criminal allegations is shared, particularly on social media, people can be seen commenting and sharing this information full of condescension, condemnation, and vitriol.
The ubiquitous one-liner, “send nudes” has become the subject of many memes. Thanks to cell phones and dating apps, many people are a lot more “free” sharing pornographic images than they once were. A practice referred to as sexting.
One of the primary dangers of sexting is that those who later feel rejected by a potential mate may end up malicious publishing private and intimate content for the world to see.
Sharing sexually explicit content without the subject’s consent is known as revenge porn – and it can be especially problematic. If you have been wronged by an “ex” and feel like sharing explicit images of them as a means of shaming them, you could face serious criminal repercussions. On the flip side, if you discover that private images of you have been shared without your consent on revenge porn websites – it can turn your life upside-down.
Any way you look at it, revenge porn is not worth the negative consequences. If you are inclined to vent about a past relationship, we will provide some better (and legal) alternatives to revenge porn at the end of this article.
The Streisand Effect
The Streisand Effect is a weird, roundabout tale of censorship gone wrong. In 2003, celebrity Barbra Streisand discovered an image of her personal residence online. It turns out the photo was taken as part of a research project and had only been viewed 6 times (2 of which were by Streisand’s attorneys).
Instead of shrugging the incident off, Streisand’s attorneys tried to get the image removed in a lawsuit against the photographer.
The lawsuit was picked up by news media, bringing attention to the very thing that Streisand sought to censor. Within a month of filing suit, the image had approximately 500,000 views. Thus, the Streisand Effect was born: a phenomenon where an attempt to hide something only makes it more popular.
In the context of online shaming, the Streisand Effect is a double-edged sword – hurting both the “shamee” and the shamer. If you make a shaming post, assuming only your close friends and family will see it, it could go viral in ways you never imagined.
Once that occurs, it is almost impossible to backtrack. You might delete the post, but it has already been shared countless times. If you find yourself at the center of a lawsuit over the post, there is no doubt the viral re-posting will be used against you.
If you have not seen a meme or viral video referencing a “Karen,” you are missing out on one of the internet’s most popular tropes (for the moment). If your name happens to be Karen, you are probably all too aware of the negative connotation the name has taken on in recent years.
While not every internet “Karen” is actually named Karen, the pejorative term is used to describe “entitled middle-class white women.” In particular, women that ask to “speak to the manager” or call the police over seemingly inane behavior are deemed “Karens” by internet critics.
In recent months, the moniker has been used to shame those who refuse to wear masks against state health guidelines.
While we are on the subject of “Karens,” it is probably a good opportunity to transition to a discussion of social justice warriors and “cancel culture.”
Cancel Culture & Social Justice Warriors
At the time this article is being written, it is an election year in the United States. So political discourse has taken center stage and political discourse is as divisive as ever. Not only are individuals finding themselves the subject of shaming for their political leanings, but “cancel culture” has landed businesses in the spotlight of shame as well.
Social justice warriors (SJW) are the vigilantes of the internet – happy to call out others for behavior or ideas they disagree with.
The problem is that SJWs tend to focus more on blaming and shaming than starting a dialogue, leading more to division than progress. Their shaming only publicizes the other person’s beliefs. Like the Streisand Effect draws attention to something one aims to suppress, SJWs sometimes give more credibility to an otherwise fringe belief.
Take the food brand, Goya, for instance. In early July (2020), Goya’s CEO, Bob Unanue endorsed President Donald Trump in a Rose Garden press conference, referring to the President as a “blessed leader.” The CEO’s political endorsement of Trump sparked a huge outcry and calls to “boycott Goya” over the perceived disconnect between Trump’s treatment of Latinos and Goya’s primary customer base.
Consumers took to social media to express outrage, making it clear they do not want to support outspoken business owners with political beliefs that differ from their own. The problem is that all the attention created two different camps: the “Boycott Goya” camp on one side and the “Buy-cott Goya” camp on the other.
At the end of the day, Goya brands were trending all over social media, and a GoFundMe page leads to hundreds of thousands in revenue for the company. Whether the Goya shaming worked out better for SJWs or the brand itself will largely depend on who you ask.
This begs the question whether cancel culture and online shaming are actually effective in the long run.
Shaming individuals and businesses for racism has also become omnipresent in recent news. Particularly since the death of George Floyd in May (2020) and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. People have started calling out racism all over the globe.
Naturally, racism and injustice provoke strong feelings and public shaming seems to be a natural byproduct of that moral disgust.
Reputation Management Tip: You can use Google Alerts to monitor mentions of your name or business online. While this free tool does not prevent online defamation, it is a great way to track what is being published so that you can respond quickly to any negative content.
Why You Should Not Shame Someone Online
Today, there are virtually infinite ways to shame someone online. And sometimes, in the heat of the moment, putting someone on blast for the world to see can be quite tempting.
What you may not realize is that online shaming carries some pretty heavy psychological consequences. Emotionally speaking, shame is a different feeling from guilt. Shame is an attack on our “person” and makes us hate ourselves.
When we feel shame, we hate ourselves and feel flawed or evil – like we are a bad person who cannot ever be salvaged. Guilt, on the other hand, is a recognition that we have hurt someone else’s feelings, that something we have said or done was not in the best taste.
While the difference between guilt and shame may sound like a subtle distinction, the effects on a person’s mental health are significant. Guilt has a greater tendency to lead to change because the person who feels guilt recognizes that they are not bad, but they made a fixable mistake. They are more inclined to change their ways.
According to psychologists, shame is a more destructive emotion. This is because, “ridding oneself of guilt is often easier than overcoming shame, in part because our society offers many ways to expiate guilt-inducing offenses, including apologizing, paying fines, and serving jail time.”
As internet defamation attorneys, we have seen first hand the harm caused by online shaming. We would like to take this opportunity to share some of the consequences of internet shaming that might make you think twice before hitting that submit button.
You Can Ruin Someone’s Reputation & Livelihood
If you are angry with someone, you may think it will be worthwhile to humiliate them online. But it is important to remember that online shaming can cause long-term damage to the other person’s reputation. You could be responsible for someone losing their job and their income, especially if you shame an employee or business.
While you may feel okay with those consequences in the heat of the moment, it helps to think about the harm you could actually cause. Even if the other person had a bad attitude or did something wrong, was it so bad that their children or family deserve to suffer too?
Beyond that, there are two sides to every story. We all have bad days and make mistakes. In the past, we did not run the risk of eternal public humiliation for the world to see via online shaming. It behooves everyone to stop and think before pushing that “submit” button, “Have I ever made a mistake at work, been in a bad mood, or said something I should not have said?” Sometimes, when we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we are not so quick to rush to judgment.
Look no further than the news to find a prominent example of shaming ruining a victim’s life. In 2012, Mark Adam Smith confronted a Chick-Fil-A employee over the company’s anti-LGBTQ stance. In his attempt to shame an employee for working for a “hateful corporation” he shared a video of the confrontation on YouTube – thinking only his five followers would see it.
Instead, the video went viral, and Smith became the victim of shaming himself. The company where he worked as CFO received bomb threats and he was promptly fired. He received death threats, photos of his children were published online, and internet warriors suggested he should kill himself. According to Smith, he almost took their advice, contemplating suicide for the first time in his life.
More than two years after the incident, Smith still had not lived down his reputation. He was repeatedly turned down for work, and nearly lost his home. The CFO who once had over $1 million in stock options had to rely on food stamps to feed his family.
Shame Can Last Forever
For better or worse, things posted to the internet can last forever. Even when shamers feel remorse and try to delete a post, it is often too late. Most of today’s internet users now know how to take screenshots of posts, making the post last forever even if it is later removed. The same is even more true for viral posts.
If several scraper sites repost the content or news publications pick up the story, there is no going back. You may be able to convince a website or two to remove the content but preventing reposts will likely become a never-ending game of cat and mouse.
Online Defamation Fact: an absolute defense to a charge of defamation is “truth.” Not only can individual defendants defend themselves by claiming their statements were true, news publications often rely on the defense of truth. While some news publications will modify minor inaccuracies, they will rarely remove content that is substantially truthful.
Your inability to “walk back” a shaming post is only the tip of the iceberg. As discussed earlier, shame is a powerful emotion that can cause grave psychological damage. One victim wrote of the ever-present role of shame in his life after he was called out for cheating on his ex. Others have suffered even more dire consequences, like the 47-year-old clerk who took his own life after being accused of racism on a Facebook post.
Unfortunately, we never really know just how close someone might be to the brink – and an impulsive act of online shaming could be the very thing that pushes someone over the edge. A split-second decision to post something online could lead to a lifetime of pain and regret, for both the shamer and the victim.
Unintended Consequences of Shaming
The backlash of online shaming affects more than just the lives of those who are targeted. Viral posts, by their very nature, have the power of taking on lives of their own – long after the original post is made. When individuals use viral posts to share information or spread positive messages, the results can be overwhelming.
Use the power of online influence to be part of a solution – not part of the problem.
In 2018, a woman who later became known as #PermitPatty was caught on camera calling the cops on an African-American girl selling water. The video was shared online and quickly went viral. Ultimately, #PermitPatty, otherwise known as Alison Ettel, had to resign from her job at a cannabis products company.
The problem was that Ettel was not the only person harmed in the aftermath. The company she worked for was threatened and people started boycotts (even though her employer had nothing to do with the incident). Other employees and customers were harassed in addition to Ettel, despite their complete lack of involvement with Ettel’s behavior.
We have also seen revenge porn lead to (drastic) unintended consequences. While a shamer may intend to embarrass an ex who has wronged them, revenge porn can actually be dangerous for the victim.
Often, victims of revenge porn will be the target of criminal extortionists. They may even receive death threats. More often than not, this is not the type of outcome the original poster is looking for.
The Shaming Incident May Backfire on You
Shaming posts are often controversial in some manner. There are two sides to every story, and as you might imagine, not every person who views a post will take the same side. There is always a chance that others could side with the person you are posting about.
People commenting online may start harassing you or say that you are the one acting like a bully. They may say your post was insensitive, offensive, or an exaggeration. You may even be accused of lying or trying to draw attention to yourself.
Shaming someone online is probably not the best way of getting support or sympathy after a frustrating incident. More often than not, online shaming ends up doing just the opposite: attracting negative attention.
The consequences of online shaming are not only ethical in nature. One of the more dire consequences shamers face is the threat of legal action – in the form of criminal or civil lawsuits.
You Could Face Legal Consequences
At Minc Law, we specialize in filing lawsuits against those who publicly shame and defame our clients online. If your post is not true or accurate and harms another person’s reputation, you could be sued.
Here are just a few of the legal claims you could face for online shaming:
If you shame someone online, you could be accused of cyberbullying, which is nothing to take lightly. According to studies, 4 in 10 Americans have experienced some form of online harassment. Let me be blunt, you do not want to contribute to these statistics! Because of the breadth and severity of online harassment, cyberbullying has become a serious criminal issue that is punishable by law.
Doxing, revenge porn, and online harassment could also land you in criminal trouble. As online shaming increases, more states are adding criminal statutes designed to protect victims from some of the more sinister forms of shaming. While you may think your shaming post is justified, law enforcement could disagree, and that is not a conflict worth engaging.
Aside from possible criminal consequences, you could face civil damages for shaming someone online.
Just this year, two women tweeted allegations that Justin Bieber sexually assaulted them (on separate occasions) in 2014 and 2015. As you might imagine, the tweets went viral. The girls deleted their tweets within days of posting them, but the damage was done.
The tweets had gone viral and were reposted all over the internet as well as picked up by news publications. Less than a week after the posts were made, Bieber’s attorneys filed a $20 million defamation lawsuit against both women. In his lawsuit, Bieber claims that the allegations were “fabricated” and “factually impossible.”
No matter how you look at it, you do not want to be on the defending end of a lawsuit. Litigation will drain your time, money, and resources. It will also cause a ton of stress in your life. At the end of the day, the momentary satisfaction of a shaming post is not worth the threat of a lawsuit.
Alternatives to Online Shaming
If you feel angry, frustrated, or violated by someone else’s behavior there are still things you can do to address your grievances. Not only are there kinder ways to solve your problem, but the alternatives are more effective than shaming.
If this article has you thinking twice about shaming, here are some alternatives to solve your issue.
Confront the Other Person Privately
If your issue is with someone you know personally, like a cheating ex or an unfair college professor, confront them in person. We certainly understand how heated personal confrontations can be, but it is important to keep your anger in check. You can express your emotions to gain closure even if the damage caused by the other person is already done.
For instance, sharing your feelings with a cheating ex will get you a lot closer to closure than posting negative content online. Better yet, you will gain the opportunity to learn and move on without fear of a lawsuit for cyberbullying or defamation.
Take the High Road
We have all been there: driving down the road minding our own business and some careless driver cuts us off. When this happens and you feel the urge to snap a picture of their car to share with your social media friends, try taking a deep breath instead. Your anger will dissipate much faster than you can resolve a potential lawsuit.
Shaming that careless driver will not be worth facing any of the negative consequences we have discussed in this article.
Remember when you were told as a child, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Well, that is practical advice at any age. Sometimes it is better to just walk away than bring more attention to a negative situation.
Pursue Legal Action
We certainly do not want to give the impression that you should stay silent in times of injustice. We get that sometimes people commit shameful acts that should not be ignored. If you run into such a situation and think someone has committed a crime, report it to the police.
In recent years, it is hard to peruse a social media newsfeed without seeing allegations of sexual assault. We do not condone such behavior in the slightest, but social media is not the most effective venue for curing this injustice. Spread awareness, yes, but alerting the world to the fact that you were sexually assaulted online could backfire in more ways than one.
Shaming someone for sexual assault online could negatively interfere with the legal pursuit of your case. Secondly, merely posting the incident online will not prevent the individual from assaulting someone else in the future.
Your best chance of preventing future harm (and further harm to yourself) is by reporting the crime to the proper authorities.
We Help Victims of Online Shaming
We think it is disappointing how prevalent online shaming has become, and that is why we do everything in our power to stop it. If you are thinking of shaming someone on the internet, please think twice. There could be serious consequences for your actions.