Online/public shaming and how it kills community

JANUARY 14 — “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart everyone outside of it.” — Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

It was painful reading. Early Monday morning, I received (via WhatsApp) an image of the insulting remark left by a certain Eric Liew with regards to Sultan Muhammad V who resigned as Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Then within a short time, Liew’s apology came out. By then, as we all know, it was too late.

Thousands of netizens had already reacted with fire and fury, cursing and blasting Liew on everything from his race to his face to his personality to his citizenship to his right to be a part of humanity.

A strange blog even appeared on Facebook bearing his name, and whilst it’s doubtful whether Liew created it there is no doubt about the level of hatred directed towards him therein.

The next day, Umno Youth went to Liew’s employer’s office to demand that they take action against him.

Basically, by Tuesday morning a young man’s career and reputation had been ripped to shreds over one comment on a Facebook group (see note 1).

With a lot of luck and more grace, he will bounce back.

But, for the sake of Malaysia Baharu, maybe we should pause and reflect: Was all this public shaming, humiliation and hate necessary? Why do people love being part of online mobs which do nothing but tear apart a person’s life and character?

What are the effects on the community (the victim, the mob, the friends and families of both, etc.) of online hordes threatening, shaming, cursing and essentially seeking to destroy one individual?

Online/public shaming is problematic on at least two counts.

First, it represents the anti-thesis of “due process” i.e. before a person is formally ‘tried’, he is already convicted, sentenced and punished... over and over again.

People who join a mob know nothing about the people they are attacking and whose lives they are urging everyone else to annihilate.

They don’t know anything about his family, about her health problems, about his anxiety issues, about her charitable works, about his difficult relationships with his spouse, about her involvement with charity, about the drinking problem which he’s recovering from, about her dreams, and so on.

All that doesn’t matter because as long as that person made that remark or said that thing, the mob wants him/her to perish. It’s a “first degree” crime and there shall be no mercy.

The floodgates of cursing and shaming are open and no rejoinder or reply from the culprit (or victim) is going to change their minds. Witness the reaction to Liew’s apology: It only made things worse.

But can anybody seriously argue that this is fair?

How is it right to inflict punishment on someone without a trial or investigation of any sort? And if we ourselves were to do something idiotic or insensitive or irresponsible, wouldn’t we long for a second chance, for others to hear us out, for people not to question our sincerity when we show remorse?

So, one, if the law is about fairness, then online shaming is the very opposite because it breaks not just the legal code (of a fair trial) but also the Golden Rule (see note 2) in which one should treat others in ways that one would like to be treated.

Two, being part of a mob changes us for the worse.

Joining a hate-throng (or a “doxing” group) only breeds frenzy, animosity, retribution and violence. It’s like sharks in the water. C’mon, have you ever seen a peaceful pack of netizens “hounding” a key public personality to show mercy?

Has there been cases whereby thousands of netizens post comments to request an authority to forgive someone? The closest we get to that are online petitions, but those are nothing like an e-mob.

When we participate in online shaming/cursing, we’re almost no different from the killer characters in the cult movie franchise, The Purge, where for 12 hours all crime (including murder) is legal.

In those movies, for that period of time, people are allowed to vent all their anger and hatred on whoever they want in an act of “purging” or “cleansing” their souls.

It sounds sick, but you wonder if a similar dynamic is at work in online shaming? Someone insulted a VVIP. Okay, that was wrong. Effect? Hordes of people feel absolutely justified in demanding his blood and, in doing so, give vent to some of the most despicable, bigoted and racist statements you can find on social media.

Yes, that’s the tragic irony: When you read some of what these haters say, it’s hard to tell which offence is worse, the target’s or theirs.

The bottomline is that public shaming — not unlike in The Purgedehumanises people, while making them feel good and superior about it.

We feel smug and “safe” because we have helped destroy that oh-so-wrong person who violated our community’s norms, without noticing the darkness bred inside us in the process.

We must stop being part of an online mob, and encourage our community to stop it too.

Online/public shaming is not fair, it’s not just, it involves double standards, and it turns us into a self-righteous mob who believe we have the right to mete out justice. It kills community.

Can Malaysia Baharu do better? Can we teach our children to avoid publicly tearing another person down, no matter how guilty s/he may look?

Can we teach our kids to mind our own business and stop acting like jury/judge/executioner? Maybe learn to forgive or, if nothing else, keep silent?

Note 1: By Thursday, three or four more individuals had either been fired or arrested for their online remarks. However, with regards to online shaming, arguably Liew had it the worst as he was probably the first.

Note 2: The Silver Rule is the golden one expressed in the negative i.e. one should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. If we wouldn’t want to be publicly shamed for our stupid remarks, why do it to others?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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