Public shaming and Internet bullies on parade

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and today's media outlets, public humiliation is moving at the speed of the Internet, and there's no stopping it

Man with sad face on chalkboard
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I like what I call popcorn columns: topics that explode out of the popper that is the daily Internet of trending tech headlines. These featherweight puffs land on my page for ridicule before they're dissolved, digested, and forgotten. But sometimes, what you think is a quickly masticated kernel becomes difficult to chew and impossible to ignore or forget. This time, the popcorn was Chris Hansen.

In case you’ve forgotten, Chris is the ex-"Dateline NBC" journalist who pioneered the show "To Catch a Predator," where paid, adult consultants who could pass for 13-year-olds would interact with potential pedophiles in Internet chat rooms, invite them to a temporarily parent-free house for underage sex, and finally, briefly greet them when they showed up before ducking out, replaced by Hansen and a camera crew. It was not a good day for those guys.

Later on, Hansen was caught in lies of his own when it was discovered and publicized on the Internet that he’d been cheating on his wife with another TV reporter. The network dumped Hansen, the Internet vilified him, the show died (though reruns are available both on TV and YouTube), and he melted into obscurity for the most part. Now, Hansen’s back with a Kickstarter page proposing an online show, "Hansen vs. Predator." It's basically an extension of his "Dateline" activities, albeit updated for the modern Internet (apparently pedophiles have moved on from Yahoo chat rooms) and independent of network oversight. It could be awesome popcorn fodder if we consider how many startup frat dudes in Silicon Valley might wind up on the air.

But those airy bites turned into a chewy mess on me with a few notable events:

  1. Pammy put fatherhood into my brain.
  2. The world recently saw some online-instigated teen suicides.
  3. Jon Ronson dropped a new book.

Ronson's book is called "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed," and in it, he looks at how the Internet and social media have become instruments of citizen-initiated public humiliation. While I don’t agree with some of his takes, the book is very definitely worth the read. He talks to notable shamees you’ll probably remember, like Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, and Lindsey Stone. Since the book’s publication, he’s also done an interview with Monica Lewinsky, who is now an editor for Vanity Fair and apparently wants to specialize in public shaming as a story topic.

The combination of Pammy, Hansen, and Ronson, plus recent public shaming tragedies, has my brain nagging me about how quickly this trend has evolved, not to mention how unpredictable and venomous it can be.

It’s hard to be sympathetic to Hansen’s pedophiles, though they become pathetic in later episodes; when the guys know what’s coming, it’s hard to keep watching. Moving that experience to the Internet with new ingredients like live Twitter feeds, immediate Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest updates, and anonymous comments only make that worse -- or is "more effective" the right phrase? I guess it depends on a bunch of unpredictable and situational factors, though "disturbing" would always apply.

Tech's role in tragedy

It is, however, easy to sympathize with cases like Blake Brockington, the transgender teen who described online the hate and shaming he experienced on the Internet after he was voted homecoming king of his North Carolina high school and then, last month, killed himself. Disturbingly similar is the case of Taylor Alesena, another transgender teen who made YouTube videos describing her experiences and killed herself shortly after Brockington, apparently due to “intense bullying” by her classmates. I’m not sure if that bullying included an online shaming component, but it’s probably a safe bet it did.

I’m highlighting those two examples not because they’re related to sexual politics, but because they’re very recent and they concern kids. What am I going to tell this child Pammy wants me to father when it comes to social media? How that technology will evolve in between now and when RXC Jr. might enter his second decade is impossible to predict. I suppose the bullying half of the equation is easy: Don’t.

You might think it’s especially easy for any kid of mine -- it should come as no surprise that as a family, we Cringelys have never much been in a position to bully. But it has me worried.

The digital distortion

Social media bullying doesn’t require a teenage glandular disorder for that extra helping of size, strength, and bloodlust. It only requires a keyboard, a media account that doesn’t lead back to you, and anger-cum-hate. Every teenager bears those traits at some point today and certainly tomorrow. I learned some of my tolerance values because early on I was the untolerated, the underdog. I had no easy way of getting even, so understanding my situation and learning from it was a natural consequence. The Internet takes some of that need away, and as a parent, I’ll need to fill that void carefully. Granted, I’ve devolved into a well-lubricated snark factory since then, so it’s going to take a lot of work on my part.

What if my kid winds up on the other side of a shaming incident? What if he’s openly gay and speaks out about it, or worse, I raise enough public ire through one of these postings and the resulting e-bile spills over onto him? What if he has a brain-fart tweeting episode like Sacco? Or goes through a dishonest phase like Lehrer?

I’ve grown used to nasty reader comments or emails, and as a result I’ve developed a thick skin and a well-stocked bar. But what happens to the kids I mentioned above or the people that Ronson writes about and most probably to the people Hansen will expose in his new show is different. It doesn’t take a Hansen to get you there.

What’s so scary about online shaming is that it can happen to anyone. Any of us can screw up enough to make a blip on Twitter. But for some of us, that blip will get caught in a viral tornado spiral that ruins your life at that moment and damage you long into the future, if not permanently. Is it possible to prepare a child for such an event? Should you even try?

Once again, I don’t know. But as I see teen suicides happen only a few weeks apart and read about the long-term effect shaming has had on people like Sacco or Lewinsky (whether you think they deserved it), then click into a shaming spiral as it happens and witness the sheer malignant glee with which people pile on while mostly hiding behind Internet anonymity themselves -- to say it’s scary is an understatement.

In my day, at least the high school bully had to stand his zit-farm up and face me along with three or seven of his closest associates, and I knew their real names. They had to do their bullying in person and had to see and enjoy its effect. Internet bullies need neither, which is why it’s so popular and in its own way more poisonous. I had a couple of obvious defenses open to me starting with a swift kick in the yam bag and a well-planned escape route.

But you can’t yam-punt an anonymous tweeter, let alone a few million of them. All you can do is disengage, which is going to become increasingly difficult for kids as time goes on. How do you protect your kid in that situation? Suggestions welcome.

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