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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Social Media: Is It Today’s Modern Day Public-Shaming Venue?

By Peter DeWitt — July 29, 2015 3 min read
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Recently, I read a book that I still cannot get out of my head. That does not happen a lot unfortunately. Truth be told, I have a pile of books I bought to read at some point but many of them are not opened for a second time. This one is different. My friend Ariel Price recommended it to me, and right from when I downloaded it to my iPad and began to read, I had a hard time putting it down. And every time I sign onto social media, it becomes a piece of my moral compass.

The book is titled So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed focuses on how social media has been used to publically shame different people. It doesn’t matter whether they have celebrity status or someone who is not known and writes an insensitive Tweet that goes out to their 140 followers, which ends up being reTweeted to millions of people.

Remember Justine Sacco?

According to Ronson, in the early days of Twitter, the social media tool used to be used to level the playing field. In this article for the N.Y. Times, Ronson writes,

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized.

As an example of eveling the playing field in the book, Ronson writes,

When LA Fitness refused to cancel the gym membership of a couple who had lost their jobs and couldn't afford the fees, we rallied. LA Fitness hurriedly backed down. These giants were being brought down by people who used to be powerless--bloggers, anyone with a social media account. And the weapon that was felling them was a new one: online shaming.

As a blogger, I have had my share of anonymous commenters who have called me names and written some personal attacks. It almost makes you want to step back and not write in fear that someone will write something truly horrifying, but that is when you have to remember that sometimes poking the hornet’s next will get you stung.

I had one commenter that changed their username often as if to make me think it was multiple people. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t realize that Education Week sends me an e-mail notification with the person’s e-mail address.

But still, negative comments on a blog is not anything like the public shaming that happens on Twitter. Through Twitter I have seen people get attacked, and others attack me, for titles of blogs. I say “titles” because it is clear from the 140 characters they Tweeted out that they have not read the blog.

The righteous are all around us on Twitter and Facebook ready to play “Wac-a-Mole” with anyone who seems to step over their moral compass. I often wonder if people live their lives by the same rules they Tweet by, or if they can be more righteous on-line because people don’t know them personally.

In the book, Ronson writes,

And then one day it hit me. Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way. When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice. And so I made a decision. The next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer--the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way--I would leap into the middle of it. I'd investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.

Take some time to check out your home feed on Twitter. Do you see people who go on the attack? Do you enjoy it? Do you think people deserve it? Or... do you try to intervene? Most people don’t intervene. And we wonder why kids don’t stand up for others who are being bullied?

As a kid growing up before the internet I said my share of stupid things. Unlike days of old when those statements were made in front of one or two friends who would call me out or laugh, now we have adolescents and adults who share them on Twitter. That lacks common sense but does it mean they should be publically shamed because of it? Is it possible what they mean and what comes out in a Tweet can be two different things?

In the N.Y. Times article, Ronson writes,

As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

In the book, Ronson writes that he is worried that social media is teaching us to be more compliant because we are concerned...even worried...that our Tweets will be taken the wrong way. Equally as scary as the compliance concern is the idea that a tool that should be used to communicate with others around the world, can create the worst moments for our students when they Tweet something that sounded better in their head than it did in a Tweet.

In the End

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is powerful. It has deep implications for any of us who use social media to share a message with others or build our own professional/personal network. More than that though, it examines why humans seem to enjoy seeing other humans get knocked down. Perhaps it’s why reality television is so popular.

Some of the examples are disturbing. I’m not sure that the attacks will ever change. There are just some people on social media that use it to attack others. However, if you read the book I highly doubt you (or your students) will ever look at social media the same way again, and perhaps that is where the change will begin to happen.

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Watch Jon Ronson’s Ted Talk:

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.