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internet shaming (online shaming)

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Internet shaming is the use of social media, blogs and other online communication channels to attack a target individual or organization. The purpose of the attack is often to publicly embarrass the target, often as retribution for some behavior.

Internet shaming is an online version of vigilantism, in which people take the law into their own hands. As in the physical world, vigilantes often believe that their actions are a way to bring about justice that would not otherwise be served. In other cases, online shaming is used to attack someone out of spite or to discredit the victim. (See: cyberbullying)

Types of internet shaming include doxing, the publication of sensitive information  about a target individual or organization. The attacker may believe that the public has the right to information that the target would prefer was private. At other times, the purpose is simply extortion for financial gain. Another common form of online shaming, revenge porn, is the publication of sexually explicit images and video as a way of humiliating the target. Such content is often posted by a former romantic partner.

Often, however, internet shaming simply exploits the volatile nature of online communications. Because mobile phones are omnipresent and messages spread widely and rapidly through social media, online vigilantism can very quickly become disproportionate to the incident that sparked it. The immediacy of response also means that those sharing messages may send them before checking facts and giving the matter due consideration. According to clinical psychologist John Suler, author of "Psychology of the Digital Age," the extreme nature of online shaming results from a lack of empathy for online targets. Suler claims that, often, the purpose of the attack is to destroy the target. Internet shaming has led to threats, physical attacks, lost jobs, disruption of families and suicides.

Internet shaming can also lead to positive change, however. United Airlines, for example, has often been the target of internet shaming for incidents that created public relations (PR) crises. In April 2017, security officers forcibly removed David Dao from a flight to accommodate an employee of a partner airline. Other passengers captured video as Dr. Dao was dragged from the airplane after refusing to give up the seat he had paid for and was occupying. The video went viral and the airline was widely mocked and condemned. In the wake of the public shaming, UA said they would no longer bump any passengers from flights after they had boarded. By August 2017, UA and other airlines had lowered their rates of overbooking and raised the maximum amount of compensation they can offer passengers to give up their seats.

This was last updated in August 2017

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