Online Shaming

By: Michal Lavi

“When shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes, nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”

Shaming is nothing new—people have been doing it for centuries. However, the digital era has made shaming easier. Anyone can write a post, take out a cell phone, snap a photo, publicize inappropriate behavior, and thereby shame others. A post on the internet can travel around the world and be shared by millions of users within seconds. As the information circulates, the audience is more likely to believe it because people tend to believe and disseminate statements they are exposed to repeatedly. In addition, the more times a post is shared, the higher it appears in Google search results and the greater exposure it enjoys.

The information that spreads on the internet can reach traditional media outlets that may contextualize it. Furthermore, new technologies can enable the identification of a person who would otherwise remain anonymous or unknown to the person who first published the post. Needless to say, tagging can also be used for shaming. As a result, the audience may figure out who is in a picture.

Shaming has many virtues. It makes it harder for people to get away with wrongful behavior. It can promote freedom of expression and provide efficient deterrence. By spreading information on individuals’ behavior, it encourages them to watch their reputation. Finally, it helps the public to avoid inefficient transactions.

Yet shaming also raises many problems. Anyone can shame someone else based on individual values and offend certain segments of society just because they are different. People are often shamed for violating norms that are not universal. Shaming can also insult human dignity disproportionately. When the initiators of shaming are private citizens, as opposed to courts, it is committed without fact checking or due process and can promote the dissemination of falsehoods.

In the digital age it is hard to keep shaming under control. Therefore, shaming should be defined broadly. Expressions can be taken out of context and develop into defamation, even if the original speech was true. Shaming can also develop into a “lynch mob.” Thus, an action that started with an aspiration to promote social order may actually lead to social turmoil.

Digital shaming raises a variety of questions and challenges that policy makers must address, yet it remains under-explored. This issue can be explored in many ways, but our research will focus on one particular aspect: non-ephemeral online shaming.

Today, forgetting has become the exception and remembering the rule. Online shaming can be exposed through a simple Google search, leaving a trail that follows the individual everywhere. How should the law react to these changes? Can the benefits of shaming be preserved in the long term, or are they lost over time? Should the law establish a right to be forgotten even in cases of shaming, and if so – when and how? The research aims to address these questions, focusing on the shaming of ordinary people who are not public figures. It will outline the phenomenon and review its merits and flaws. It will then propose a taxonomy of three types of shaming: A) “Good shaming” – shaming that is initiated by the court and carried out according to a judicial decision or recommendation; B) “Bad shaming” – shaming an individual by spreading false rumors, or shaming that spins out of control and evolves into harassment or violence; C) “Shaming the ugly behavior” – shaming a person by private individuals for violating the law or norms.

The research will examine whether and when search engines should remove links to search results that contain shaming, including consideration of the benefits and shortcoming of the right to be forgotten. It will demonstrate that these benefits and shortcomings are not equally valid in all circumstances. Following this analysis, the research will argue that a dichotomous perspective that chooses between oblivion (deletion of the shaming information) and permanent memory (leaving the expression online without limitations) is inappropriate. Instead, it will make the case for a differential right to be forgotten that acknowledges nuances of shaming.