Public shaming discards principle ‘innocent until proven guilty’

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They say that there is wisdom in crowds, but they also warn that we should not fall prey to a mob mentality. The point is that large groups of people have a mixed reputation. 

It is a fine line that matters now more than ever as the throngs of people who are active on social platforms are becoming more adept at flexing their muscle and attaining whatever justice they see fit.

They say that there is wisdom in crowds, but they also warn that we should not fall prey to a mob mentality. The point is that large groups of people have a mixed reputation. 

It is a fine line that matters now more than ever as the throngs of people who are active on social platforms are becoming more adept at flexing their muscle and attaining whatever justice they see fit.

In early May, a video of a man yelling at a Manhattan lunch spot was uploaded online. He was yelling at the manager of the eatery because he had overheard two of the employees speaking Spanish. As the manager pushed back against the complaint the man said, “And my guess is they are not documented. So my next call is to ICE to have them kicked out of my country. If they have the balls to come here and live off my money – I pay for their welfare, I pay for their ability to live here.” 

In less than twenty-four hours the video had millions of views and the man was identified as Aaron Schlossberg, a 44-year-old attorney. 

He promptly was kicked out of the office space he was renting, the Yelp page for his law firm was bombarded with bad reviews, he is facing possible disbarment, and he is constantly being hounded in the streets by tabloid journalists and angry citizens. 

Social shaming has long been a useful tool that societies have deployed to make clear what values it stands for and what actions it will not permit. The issue with the modern day version of shaming is that, previously, it was done by people who knew who you were. Often these social shaming displays took place in the town square in front of your friends and neighbors, the context of who you were and the type of life you had lived was taken into consideration when your penalty was doled out. 

Today people 5,000 miles away from you can seal your fate by pressing the retweet button or by helping to push along the momentum of a #hashtag. 

We have replaced gavels with thumbs.

The Schollsberg incident was reminiscent of the Justine Sacco fiasco from 2013. Sacco was the senior director of communications for IAC and was headed home to South Africa for the holidays when, before she got on the plane, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 

She boarded her 11 hour flight and by the the time she landed, she was the number one trending topic on twitter. Hashtags like #sacksacco calling for her to be fired went viral. Her employers listened and she was immediately terminated. 

All of the negative attention and real world repercussions caused her to fall into a deep depression that she says she is just working her way out of now. On the other hand, the masses who called for her firing have long forgotten her. 

Both of these cases highlight the perils and benefits of the online courtrooms our favorite social platforms have become. In the Schlossberg case, one could make the case that people who are openly racist should not have the benefit of transacting business freely. I am not arguing the he should be jailed or physically hurt in any way, but he felt comfortable yelling at Mexican workers and shaming them in public even though he had no idea who they were. A large part of society let him know how they felt about his actions – this feels like the appropriate use of social shaming. 

In the Sacco case, at worst, she made a joke in bad taste, and a more charitable viewing of her joke would be that she was actually criticising the double standard of the way society reacts to white pandemics as opposed to black pandemics. Even if you take the worst interpretation, should being unfunny on the internet be a fireable offense? 

What becomes clear after looking at case after case of online social shaming is that even when they are right, it is by accident. The masses err on the side of the prosecution, of getting the conviction and seeking the steepest penalty possible.  

Basically, they seek the exact inverse of our own justice system. Our justice system is so committed to securing the rights of the defendant that people who are likely criminals are set free on technicalities like minor police errors. In our actual courts we are obsessed with process, online we are obsessed with results. 

Until we find a way to localize and humanize our modern version of social shaming, many peoples’ lives will become a casualty of viral mob justice. The internet has become our town square and there is no other town to move to, so before casting a verdict let us get to know our neighbors a little better.        

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