When someone posts something offensive online, other users are often quick to chastise that user for the post in question.
“Social sites create opportunities to reflect the best and worst parts of ourselves,” said Lindsay Blackwell, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information.
Blackwell studies online harassment and said she sees a pattern of retributive justice online.
Is the act of online shaming simply users holding others accountable for their words and actions, or do some people take it too far?
In a lot of cases covered in the news, victims of online harassment deal with negative effects after the ordeal takes place. They have trouble getting jobs, feel ashamed or even unsafe leaving the house, and fear dating in case a potential partner looks them up on Google.
Kelly Stec, an MSU doctoral student studying education policy, said she thinks people are unwilling to give others second chances for one-time mistakes they make that show up online.
“Somehow we’ve forgotten that we’ve all grown as people, and we see one thing that was insensitive that people have since changed their tone on and call them out for flip-flopping instead of acknowledging that they’ve grown as a person,” Stec said. “And that’s really sad.”
But if someone is showing a repetitive pattern in offensive or insensitive speech online, she believes that person should be held accountable.
Stec said, “for one-offs I think everyone is entitled to their own response to it, but especially for younger people, taking the opportunity to educate can go a lot farther than lashing out.”
“Free speech doesn’t mean speech without consequences,” she said. “People need to learn, but they also need to be held accountable.”
Blackwell researches online harassment and has spoken with victims as well as perpetrators and users who engage in online harassment.
She said this retributive, or eye-for-an-eye, mentality is present in Western societies and is also carried out online.
Blackwell said a desire to levy justice on those who have offended others online, the ability to click on someone’s profile and see all of their old posts, and a mob mentality all help to facilitate this type of abuse.
This is different than offline engagements, she said.
“If someone zips into my spot in a parking lot, I can say something or flip them off,” Blackwell said. “But I’m just one person and that interaction ends there. I don’t know who you are and I can’t hop onto your Facebook profile and see everything you’ve ever done. Online, it’s a lot different.”
On the Internet, thousands of people can be chastising behavior deemed offensive at the same time, and those people also can look on someone’s feed to see if they’ve posted other offensive items online.
“If I see a questionable tweet come through my feed, I can immediately click on that person’s profile and make an evaluation,” she said. “Was this really an honest mistake, am I misinterpreting this, or is this person issuing other tweets like this?”
“I think that’s a really important piece of this puzzle,” Blackwell said. “We have the ability to sort of make these longer evaluations of someone’s character, whether or not they’re ultimately correct or fair.”
People don’t go after others offline with the same vigor, she said.
Blackwell said one case that interests her is that of Justine Sacco, whose racially insensitive tweet went viral while she was asleep on a flight to South Africa.
“It was sort of a global media circus while [Sacco] was in the air,” Blackwell said. “That was really fascinating to me because she had such a small, limited following on Twitter and she said this thing that, at least in my opinion, was pretty objectively racist, no matter how you excuse it.”
Sacco, who had under 200 followers at the time of the tweet, got on a flight to South Africa and while she was in the air her tweet got picked up by Buzzfeed, and she was trending worldwide on Twitter.
By the time she landed in South Africa, she had received several threats and police had to be present at the airport when she landed.
After landing, Sacco deleted the tweet and her social media accounts, while multiple fake accounts were made in her name and someone bought the URL justinesacco.com, which redirects to the Aid for Africa website.
Later, she issued an apology.
Blackwell said technological features of social media sites help facilitate this type of abuse.
She has an unpublished study currently under peer review that looked into the retributive nature and justification of online harassment. People were shown a fake, hateful tweet from one woman directed at another woman and were asked if it was appropriate, deserved, or justified.
The tweet, Blackwell said, contained “some inflammatory language and a threat.”
She said when there was no context, people said, “This is awful, I hate seeing stuff like this online, no way was this appropriate or justified.” But when certain people were told the woman being harassed stole $100 from an elderly couple, those people said she deserved it.
In the next condition, participants were told the woman being harassed had stolen $10,000, Blackwell said. “And again, we saw significant effects on how deserved and how justified our participants rated that.”
When considering online shaming, there’s also a question of what a social media users’ expectations of privacy are when they’re putting information out on the Internet.
Ken Birman, a computer science professor at Cornell, said there’s a tradeoff between privacy and communication. The Internet isn’t what should be considered a private place, he said.
Sue Scheff, author of “Shame Nation,” parent advocate and cyber advocate, said a lack of personal relationships and face-to-face contact allow people to be targeted more severely online.
“Bullies have been around for generations,” Scheff said. “Technology has given bullies a bigger platform. The weak have become brave and bold because they can hide behind a screen.”
Scheff said she doesn’t believe online hate is going away, “and hate perpetrates hate.” Her biggest concern is with people endorsing hateful posts online, she said.
In a world where most people are armed with smartphones, “we’re not allowed to have an ‘oops’ moment and not risk it going viral,” Scheff said.
One such instance intrigued Scheff: when Twitter user Kelly Keegan live-tweeted a couple breaking up on an airplane in 2015. Initially, Scheff didn’t think Keegan’s actions were appropriate, but after speaking with her, she understood where Keegan was coming from.
Scheff said Keegan told her that since it was disruptive and in a public space, she didn’t feel that it was out of line for her to live-tweet the occurrence. Scheff said Keegan told her if she could go back and do it again she would, but she wouldn’t tweet a photo of the couple.
Scheff also said she doesn’t believe it’s warranted or righteous to chastise others online over a lapse in judgment.
“We’re living in a divisive time. People take their anger out online, hiding behind the screen and they’re able to get away with it,” said Scheff, who won a lawsuit after being a victim of online defamation.
She said she encourages people to rely on what she calls the three C’s when they’re online: conduct, content and caring.
Conduct refers to users ensuring they’re behaving in a civil manner online. Content refers to users limiting what they share and thinking about whether will it embarrass/humiliate them or someone else before posting. Finally, caring refers to users posting with empathy.
“People need to learn to stand up and be an upstander,” Scheff said. She believes people will hop on that bandwagon, just like hate perpetuates hate.
Scheff said she would like to see people work to build a more empathetic society, in which it will be impossible to leave a negative comment because someone wouldn’t want themselves or a loved one to be treated that way.
If someone sends out an offensive message online, how can that be handled in a constructive way? Like Blackwell said, access to someone’s profile allows users to evaluate whether someone made an honest mistake or if its a pattern that shows up often on their profile.
Scheff said, “We’re always talking about these kids doing this, but when we have adults making these poor choices on their profile… or young adults… I’m thinking, ‘What are these young people thinking?’”
“They think they’re invincible,” she said. “That’s something I think is slowly starting to turn around.”
Scheff said one of the things she likes a lot about Blackwell’s research is that Blackwell says anyone could wake up one day and be a troll online.
As far as how to handle offensive statements made online, Scheff said she typically doesn’t get involved. If she does choose to get involved, she said she tries to address it as constructively as she can.
Scheff also said it’s important for users to be prepared to say their piece and not engage in a back-and-forth with trolls.
“It’s up to us to be accountable for our own actions online,” Scheff said.