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Making Sense of Social Media Shaming

Jul 24, 2014

Is seven million views on the internet more punishment than being charged with stealing?

That's the thinking of a man who caught two women stealing his beach tent on New Smyrna Beach, Florida on the Fourth of July.

He video taped the whole thing and posted it to the internet where it got seven million views -- and the numbers are still climbing.

He decided not to press charges, figuring their worldwide internet shaming was punishment enough.

This is just one example of the growing trend of internet shaming -- and not all of it is a good thing.

Kelly McBide of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project said this internet shaming is on the rise.

"Oh, definitely," McBride said. "Why? Well, because we can. We now all have these tools available to us, whether it's cell phone cameras or the ability to audio record. And we certainly have the tools to distribute this information. Now, whether we should do it is another question."

Public shaming has been part of the American culture for a long time. Think "The Scarlet Letter" or the days of the stockades in the public square.

But, McBride said there's no indication that shaming like that -- or on the internet -- is effective.

"Experts look at public shaming as mostly ineffective," explained McBride. "You can get retribution -- you can humiliate somebody. Maybe you deter them from doing this again. You don't incapacitate them. They could easily do it again. You don't get restitution and you clearly don't rehabilitate them. So it's clearly ineffective as a form of punishment."

As ineffective as it may be, some people are using internet shaming to go after some pretty big targets.

Recently, a recorded conversation with a rude Comcast customer service representative showed up on the internet as a way to shame the big cable company.

"That is an example where power is not evenly distributed," said McBride. "There's another music video that this band put out called "United Breaks Guitars" because they were frustrated with United Airlines breaking their guitars while they were traveling. Those are examples where you have a small person -- a powerless person -- trying to restore the balance of power. That's very different than when you have private individuals or two people who have an equal amount of power."

McBride doesn't see internet shaming -- on any level -- as being an effective force for changing behavior.

"You see lots of examples where people try to shame people who are racist or misogynistic. I think we do it a lot now because we can," she said.  "I expect we'll move beyond it once we realize that it just doesn't do any good."