Online shaming: The dangerous rise of the internet pitchfork mob   

On Saturday afternoon, enterprising eight-year-old Jordan Rodgers was selling bottles of water for two dollars each from a cool box to thirsty baseball fans in the San Francisco sunshine.

She had hoped to earn enough money to fund a dream trip to Disneyland, however the young girl’s entrepreneurial spirit was crushed when a woman passing by threatened to call the police and report her for selling drinks on the street without a permit.

Just a few hours later, millions of people worldwide would watch and pass judgement on the footage, uploaded to Twitter by the girl’s cousin, resulting in the woman on the phone becoming an online hate figure and being dubbed ‘Permit Patty’.

“So my little cousin was selling water and didn’t have a permit … so this lady decided to call the cops on an 8-year-old,” the girl’s cousin Rajé Lee tweeted alongside the footage, which has been viewed more than six million times and been shared worldwide.

“You can hide all you want,” Lee tells the woman, as she hides behind a wall in the clip. “The whole world’s gonna see you …”

Death threats directed towards the woman followed as a result of her being named and shamed online. Since the incident, the woman has also faced accusations of racism and a non-stop barrage of abusive comments.

The ostracised woman later apologised for the incident and revealed she had only pretended to call the police, telling SFGate: “It was wrong, and I wish I could take it back.”

It’s the latest example of online shaming, a dangerous social media and smartphone-fuelled trend which can have a devastating and long-lasting impact on people’s lives.

It follows a similar incident reported last month in which a white woman was recorded calling the police to complain about a black family’s BBQ in a California park.

The woman, dubbed “BBQ Becky”, was accused of racism over the clip which racked up millions of hits, however she insisted she only reported the two men for their use of a charcoal grill, which she claimed was prohibited in the park.

The rise of online shaming

In today’s era of smartphones and social media, it takes just a few seconds to upload an accusatory photo or video for the world to see, but the ramifications for individuals can last a lifetime, explains Dr Guy Aitchison, an Irish Research Council Fellow at University College Dublin.  

“People have long been called out and criticised publicly for breaching social norms,” he told The Telegraph. “If someone jumps the queue in the supermarket, say, they can expect to incur the displeasure of those waiting in line. Arguably, some of this is necessary.

“What’s new today is that technology allows this to be immediately recorded and shared with millions of other unknown internet users thanks to smartphones and social media.

“A whole global audience is then invited to join in with ridicule and abuse and this often spills over into the target’s personal life with calls for them to be fired and disciplined at work and so on.”

Videos and imagess can be instantly shared with millions of other internet usersCredit:
Bloomberg 

Dr Aitchison explains this can soon “escalate to a form of social ostracism” and often a ‘punishment’ that is “wholly disproportionate to the original offence”.

“There have been many cases of people going after the wrong person or otherwise getting the facts wrong,” he adds.

“Social media has made this much more prevalent, but the public appetite for this kind of media spectacle and moralistic shaming was evident with the rise of reality TV from the Nineties with shows such as Big Brother.”

He believes online shaming is thriving today because “politics has left people disempowered” and they “want to feel like they are fighting bad behaviour and injustice”.

“It’s a relatively low cost way to feel like you are doing something noble,” he says. “But there are also darker motivations at work: the psychic pleasure in seeing someone else brought low and humiliated.”

Real-life consequences

Online shaming can have long-term and serious consequences for the subject at the centre of the internet’s ire.

In 2013, PR executive Justine Sacco lost her job after tweeting before she boarded a plane to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!”

The tweet sparked a social media firestorm, with #HasJustineLandedYet trending worldwide before Ms Sacco landed, unaware of the controversy her tweet had generated.

Zimbabwe's Cecil The Lion was killed in 2015, leading to a vitriolic
social media campaign against Walter Palmer Credit:
Andrew Loveridge

In 2015, Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, was bombarded with messages of hate from an online mob over the killing of Zimbabwe’s much-loved lion, Cecil.

Both the Google and Facebook pages for his dental practice were flooded with angry comments, before protesters gathered outside his office to express their outrage over the incident.

The internet pitchfork mob also turned on Lindsey Stone in 2015, who became the “most hated woman on the web” when she posted a photo on Facebook of her mocking a sign at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the final resting place for more than 40,0000 military veterans.

Ms Stone received death and rape threats on Facebook, while thousands signed a petition calling for her to be fired from her job, after the photo was re-posted online by a pro-military group.

Tackling online hate

Dr Aitchison believes that social media companies “encourage” online shaming, explaining “more outrage means more clicks and more revenue through advertising”.

He believes there is much room for improvement for social media giants when it comes to tackling the dangerous trend.

“The social media companies could do more to enforce existing rules against threats, harassment, privacy breaches and other abuses,” he adds. “There is a balance here to be struck with free speech though.

“Perhaps Twitter and Facebook could afford targets a prominent ‘right of reply’ to their shamers.

“Ultimately, perhaps we need to develop a new social norm against online publicly shaming, one not enforced by shaming.”

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