When Lucky Strike server Laura Ramadei reportedly felt a male customer touch her ass “ever so gently” as he told her that he’d like to take her “to go,” she knew exactly what to do. Not only did she rebuff his awkward advance in person, she went home and did some sleuthing. By plugging the name on the receipt—Brian H. Lederman—into Google, she found her harasser right away: Lederman is a hedge-fund manager who works with Swiss Performance Management and Truehand AG.
Ramadei posted Lederman’s receipt to Facebook along with her story, eventually drawing widespread media attention to his alleged misdeed. For his part, Lederman denied the accusation but didn’t do himself any favors by telling the New York Post that he has nonetheless “grabbed plenty of girls’ asses in [his] life.” In this same interview, he also called Ramadei a “cunt” and threatened to destroy her chances of employment in New York City. Now, when you Google “Brian Lederman” the first result describes him as someone who “grabs a lot of asses.”
Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served through search engine optimization.
“Yes, You’re Racist” is the name of a Twitter account that has been very active in posting pictures of white supremacists at the Charlottesville march and rally. Logan Smith, who runs the account, thinks other people should see the faces of white supremacists.
“They’re not wearing hoods anymore — they’re out in the open,” Smith says. “And if they’re proud to stand with KKK members and neo-Nazis and anti-government militias, then I think the community should know who they are.”
Smith says he didn’t attend the rally, but he has been getting pictures from activists who were there. They share them through social media. He reposts them on his Twitter account. And on Twitter, people are happy to help him make these individuals even more public.
“Immediately, as soon as I posted those photos people (were) saying ‘Oh! I went to high school with this person.’ ‘I had a class in college with that person.’ ‘I recognize this person as a prominent white supremacist in my area.’ ”
After getting more information, Smith would add names and places to the photos, leading to some consequences in the real world.
Cole White, who used to work at a hot dog restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., “voluntarily resigned” on Saturday after his employer confronted him about his participation in the rally.
The father of participant Jeff Tefft felt he needed to post a letter in a local newspaper disavowing his son. Pearce Tefft says that although he and his family are not racists, once his son’s face and name were posted on social media they became the targets of people upset with his son.
David Clinton Wills, a visiting professor at New York University who follows social media, says he is troubled by the way that anti-racist activists are using Twitter. “Never in my lifetime did I remotely think I would vaguely defend the rights of a possibly very hateful person,” says Wills, who is black and Jewish.
Nonetheless, he says, “It scares me to call that activism because it seems more like a certain condemnation and a certain judgment that ironically flies in the face of democracy itself.”
Wills sees a lynch mob mentality on both the left and the right when they try to use social media to shame people.
Just last week, Google was at the center of another social media storm when a memo by a company employee critical of diversity efforts at the company went viral. When Google fired the employee, websites on the right, critical of the company’s actions, released names of Google employees. Those employees were then harassed online.
… it seems more like a certain condemnation and a certain judgment that ironically flies in the face of democracy itself.“
David Clinton Wills, a visiting professor at NYU, on how anti-racist activists are using Twitter
For Wills, the historical parallel is Nazi Germany, in which the Third Reich encouraged citizens to name people they thought were enemies of the state. "When that became a power that your neighbor could execute or your neighbor could use against other people, the power became unchecked,” he says.
Confirmed criminals were thus clamped in a position of acute and pitiful vulnerability in full view of the jeering mob to whom they proved irresistible targets and who were at liberty — encouraged, even — to chuck whatever they could get their hands on; clumps of earth, rotten eggs, cucumbers, turnips, offal and in their less charitable moments dead cats, paving stones, shards of glass and bricks at the victim’s head. The stakes were high; an unlucky few died in the pillory (around 10 in the course of the 18th century, according to the historian Robert Shoemaker). Aside from sodomites who fared particularly badly, no creature was more despised than false-accusers who, for reward money, swore robberies against innocent parties. John Valler stood the pillory for just that in June 1732 and a pamphlet gleefully described how ‘the mob began to pelt him with cabbage, cauliflowers and artichoke stalks …[then] they pulled down the pillory, by which the skull of this unhappy wretch was fractured’. Still not satisfied, ‘as he lay on the ground, they stamped so hard upon his body that they broke his ribs’. He was dead within the hour. This had not been the authorities’ intention; two members of the crowd were convicted of his murder three months later.
Yet the crowd could be forgiving; sympathetic even, especially when they felt the defendant had been treated unfairly.
A pamphlet gleefully described how ‘the mob began to pelt him with cabbage, cauliflowers and artichoke stalks…
Famously, when Daniel Defoe was pilloried in 1703 after publishing a faux-bigoted rant against religious dissenters (of which he was one) on the orders of the pro-dissenter, irony-deaf whig government, the only thing anyone threw at him was flowers, while the very pamphlet itself was casually sold by his supporters. And in June 1763, the Post Boy reported how the crowd reacted to two elderly men in the New Palace Yard pillory for attempted buggery — ‘their tears, which flowed in great abundance, drew such compassion, that they treated them with the greatest lenity, and some money was collected for them’.
The most interactive and democratic of all of old London’s shaming rituals, audience responses could damage, destroy or save someone’s reputation or, in rare cases, kill them; in 1509, three pilloried offenders are recorded as ‘dying of shame’ — could they have been driven to suicide, like victims of online trolling in extreme cases?
Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods. But the question of who’s responsible for the destruction — the person engaging in the behavior or the person revealing it — depends on whom you ask. At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible.
The fundamental problem is that many shamers, like Richards, don’t fully grasp the power of the medium. It’s a problem that lots of us need to reckon with: There are millions of Twitter accounts with more than 1,000 followers, and millions on Facebook with more than 500 friends. The owners of those accounts might think they’re just regular people, whispering to a small social circle. But in fact they’re talking through megaphones that can easily be turned up to a volume the entire world can hear.
Increasingly, our failure to grasp our online power has become a liability — personally, professionally, and morally. We need to think twice before we unleash it.
Here we go again. Somebody’s accidentally let the infernal swamp of badness that exists inside of their soul bubble to the surface, where it’s eked noxious ooze out and into the slipstream of the internet. Oops! They’ve done a racist tweet, a homophobic Facebook rant, an ableist Snapchat story, and now everybody knows what a bad person they are. People who previously had no idea they existed are now flooding their mentions with four-letter words and death threats. This is an internet shaming – an online pants-down – and it is only going to get worse.
Yesterday, it was the turn of south London artist Hetty Douglas. Before last night she was only known to a small circle of art students for work which basically amounts to blobs of paint with phrases like “ur fit do u wanna finger my m8” written over them. Now, since a tweet featuring a problematic comment Douglas made on Instagram went viral, every bored student and Sun-reader in the UK wants her blood.
So what can she expect from the coming days? What have we learnt from the internet shamings of old? With every passing scandal the internet has become a leaner, more efficient ignominy engine, obliterating careers in record times. But how? Pray silence, and mute your notifications, as we consider the five stages of an internet shaming.
A few weeks ago, I was on a Tube train eating an M&S pasta salad. It was a fairly inoffensive snack but even so, I’d purposefully moved somewhere quiet so that I could do it without disturbing anyone.
Halfway through munching it, I noticed a man get up out of his seat to move opposite me and take my photo. I knew that he’d done it – he’d pointed the phone at me and adjusted it for an angle. I moved away and didn’t think too much more about it. But then a friend noticed me on the Facebook group “Women Who Eat On Tubes” (20,000 members and counting) and texted me to let me know.
When I saw my photo, I felt vindicated and almost relieved that I hadn’t just been paranoid about what he was doing. But I also felt hurt and humiliated – especially by the comments mentioning my “gaping orifice” or sarcastically pondering, “I’d like to know the name of her finishing school.” I was the butt of a joke without my knowledge, in front of thousands of strangers. I’d been “stranger-shamed”.
And unlike other women who have since got in touch with me to say that they’ve been featured on similar sites and felt “helpless” to do anything, I wasn’t going to let it slide. Not only am I a journalist with time on my hands to sort this out, but with a few internet searches, I found the email address of the man who had uploaded the photo of me. I asked him to remove my picture, and although it’s now been taken down (by Facebook, not by him) hundreds of other women’s photos are still up there.
The thing is, I’m also of a generation whose default setting is “broadcast”. I tweet prolifically. I Instagram a new picture each day. I’ve perused blogs such as “Look At My F**king Red Trousers” and properly laughed at “Jeans and Sheuxs” (anonymous photos of the fashion crime of wide-legged denim with smart pointy shoes). I admit that I’ve taken photos of people without their permission and uploaded them to social networks or texted them to friends – although it’s never been broadcast to thousands of people and it’s never for something so basic as eating food on public transport.
It’s not illegal, but it is a bit odd when you think about it. When we’re in environments such as the Tube or on the web, we feel anonymised, and looking through the periscope of our cameras, we’re disconnected from the situation. Obviously, since my experience, I’ve decided that I’m never going to stranger-shame again.
Since I appeared on the Facebook group, dozens of people have been in touch, including creators of a women-eating-on-the-Tube flashmob set up with the intention of getting lots of women to eat on the Underground to overwhelm and defy any would-be photographer. There is also now a group setting out to shame men taking photos of women eating on the Tube.
But I do question whether e-vigilantism is the way of getting things done. Instead, I hope that by identifying the phenomenon of stranger- shaming, people will think twice before doing it. I don’t want anyone – female, male, old, young, wearing a diamante belt buckle reading “porn star” – to be shamed like this. Sure, it’d be lovely if Facebook closed down stranger-shaming groups or if the British Transport Police could ban people taking photos of strangers on public transport. And I have every faith that Project Guardian, a scheme from BTP which sets out to deal with harassment, will tackle stranger-shaming.
But to really stop this from happening, we need to police ourselves. Next time you see someone wearing or doing something weird, don’t get a phone out. Do your friends really want to see that picture of the guy in socks and sandals? Are you really going to be the equivalent of that old family friend who would come round to show you a slideshow of their holidays? Shame on you if so.
Online shaming may also pose a conflict between justice concerns and virtue ethics. We might want to be the kind of people who stand up for ourselves or people we agree with — but do we want to be the kind of people who shame others, meting out (potentially disproportionate) vigilante justice? In fact, sometimes the people who start an online shaming “wave” later regret their actions. Regret, in this case, seems to be a recognition of the fact that their own actions didn’t match up with their values.