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The price of public shaming in the Internet age

21 April 2015 [13:46] - TODAY.AZ
Do you believe in forgiveness? Do you believe in second chances?

Of course you do. Everybody makes mistakes. To err is human, to forgive divine. Right?

Not in the age of social media.

Take Victor Paul Alvarez. In January, the Boston reporter wrote a brief news story containing a bad joke about John Boehner. The wrath of social media fell on his head. Despite an apology, he was fired. Three months later, he's still looking for full-time work.

Or Adam Mark Smith? He was rude to a Chick-Fil-A worker on YouTube. Had to sell his house and move to a new city.

Or Justine Sacco. She's the public relations executive who tweeted, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" Thanks to public shaming, she lost her job and was left wandering in the wilderness.

Or how about the guy who made a joke about a dongle at a tech convention -- or the woman who called him out? Or the woman who posed mockingly at Arlington National Cemetery? Or the columnist who cast aspersions on a boy band star's death? Or ...

All stupid acts. All perhaps worthy of some kind of punishment. But is this justice?

Jon Ronson wonders.

The British journalist is the author of "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," which looks at the piling-on phenomenon.
In centuries past, villagers would cast out the dishonored. Colonial Americans had the stockade. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne had to wear a scarlet "A." Still, for most, the punishment was finite.

These days, it's not enough for someone who's screwed up to be rebuked. Even an apology and remorse are rarely enough.

On social media -- Twitter especially, with its global reach and lack of irony -- that person must be destroyed. Trevor Noah becomes the new host of "The Daily Show"? Suddenly, like political operatives doing opposition research, every last speck of his existence is pored over, with his missteps magnified into capital crimes.

"It's so corrosive to create that kind of society," Ronson said in a phone interview. "This desire we have to be like amateur detectives, (looking for) clues into people's inherent evil by finding the worst tweet they ever wrote, is not only wrong; it's damaging."

Father James Martin, the editor-at-large of America magazine and a Roman Catholic priest, observes that what starts out as disapproval ends up "as a complete shaming of the person." The biblical admonition of "an eye for an eye," after all, was a way to describe proportionate justice, not go overboard.

The new shaming is much more relentless.

"There's a real cruelty that comes with this mob mentality," he said. "I sometimes compare it to bullies in a schoolyard all ganging up on person who, for one second, said the wrong thing."

Going viral, going down

Martin makes it clear that there are distinctions.

If someone says something offensive, others are certainly allowed to respond. And if the person is a public figure who says something "outrageously sexist or racist or homophobic, then perhaps it would be appropriate that that person resign his or her position," he said.

But, he added, the idea "that the person should have to pay for it the rest of his or her life is unjust." Even death row inmates are more than the worst act they've ever committed, he observes.

Smith wonders whether he'll always be followed by his worst act.
On August 1, 2012, Smith posted a video of himself haranguing a Chick-fil-A employee at a drive-through. The chain had become a political football in the aftermath of an executive's statements about gay marriage, and Smith didn't like the stance.

"I was thinking I was going to make a difference," he told CNN.

By the next morning, Smith was regretting his rudeness. He posted an apology and attempted to apologize in person to the drive-through worker. (She didn't want to talk.) By the time he got to work, however, the situation was out of his control.

The video went viral, and Smith -- the CFO of a Tucson, Arizona-based medical device manufacturer -- lost his well-paying job.

That was bad enough, but things were going to get worse. Over the next 72 hours, his e-mail was filled with vitriolic threats. His personal information was released, including the address for his children's school. Letters were nailed to his front door.

He says he flipped back and forth between anger and wondering whether he deserved his fate.

"There was a tremendous amount of shame I felt. There were truths: I was rude. I didn't feel good about my side of the street," he said. "And then there were elements of 'no, I don't (deserve this). This is not right.' So I was on both sides depending on the minute."

What's been more discouraging has been how the episode has dogged him. On the advice of an attorney, he kept the incident private after taking a new job in Portland, Oregon, only to be asked to resign when the news got out. Since then, he's been up-front with prospective employers and even been offered jobs, but before long, they pull back -- even if they were initially OK with the information.

It's been rough, he says.

"I went into depression, and I had to pull myself out of this place where I had to realize that that was not who I am," he said. At one point, he says, he considered suicide. At least that way his family could be provided for.

'I know I'm not that guy'

Alvarez hasn't gone through the same extremes as Smith, but he's also struggled in the aftermath of a bad moment.

In January, a news item revealed that John Boehner's bartender had planned to poison the House speaker. Alvarez, then a editor, wrote a story cracking a joke about Boehner's liver, drawing the ire of Boehner's spokesman.

The story soon caused an uproar, and although Alvarez was initially assured that things would blow over, they didn't. He was given his walking papers within 48 hours, amid a sea of angry postings.

He apologized, going through every Twitter message and sending a personal note of acknowledgment.

/By CNN/

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