Shame on You: The Phenomenon of Public Shaming on the Internet


Wooden pillories from the colonial era — Photo Credit: Pinch of Salt

“It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very idea of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.”

— Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Public Shaming in the United States can be traced back to the colonial era, a time when the stocks and pillories were routinely used as punishment by governmental and church authorities. Little evidence explains why punitive shaming fell out of favor.  It’s likely that public outcry “bemoaning the outsize cruelty” made continuing the practice untenable, particularly when “well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far” (Ronson par. 44).

In this new digital age, we no longer require the government or church agents to rule on a person’s guilt or innocence.  We judge our neighbors, our co-workers, and even people that we’ve never met–and we do it from the privacy and comfort of our homes and offices.  We decide who deserves public humiliation for some behavior that has offended us.  We are the judge and jury, and we use the Internet as a virtual pillory.

When did public shaming make the jump to the Internet?

It’s hard to say when the first byte of ridicule made its way across the networks of World Wide Web.  It might be easier to make a case that the first person to really feel the collective wrath of the Internet was Monica Lewinsky.

Monica Lewinsky’s private life and personal relationships became collateral damage in the war between President Bill Clinton and Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr.  At the time, she was a 22-year-old White House intern whose only crime was “fall[ing] in love with [her] boss” (Lewinsky).  After a whirlwind romance, she was “swept up into the eye of a political, legal, and media maelstrom”—the likes of which had never before been seen (Lewinsky).

Unfortunately for Lewinsky, her scandal and subsequent shame took place at the beginning of the digital revolution.  Even a few years earlier, this scandal would have been exposed in any of three traditional media outlets: newspapers or magazines, radio, and television.  However, in this new digital age, her scandal could be reviewed at all hours of the day by any person in the world with an Internet connection. Websites provided audio copies of evidence subpoenaed as part of the Starr investigation, including “Linda Tripp’s wiring and taping, Lewinsky’s taped telephone conversations with both Tripp and Clinton, and Lewinsky’s titillating narratives for her trusted friends and relatives” (Glenn 96).  In fact, this scandal was initially exposed on the Internet—the first time that the traditional news media was “usurped by the Internet for a major news story” (Lewinsky).

In an instant, she gained worldwide infamy and became a target of public ridicule.  Lewinsky states that “technology led to mobs of virtual stone-throwers” (Lewinsky).  In this time before Facebook and Twitter, people could let their personal judgements flow in the comment sections of news sites or through their emails.  She couldn’t turn on a television without seeing her face plastered all over “to sell newspapers, banner ads online, and to keep people tuned to the TV,” being branded “a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, that woman” (Lewinsky).  During this time, Lewinsky wasn’t even allowed to defend herself publicly as she was held under a gag order by Starr (Glenn 96).

Lewinsky has admitted that the pressures of her ordeal nearly lead her to suicide.

How has online public shaming evolved?

Clay Shirky, a consultant on the effects of the internet on society, writes that “the ways in which the information we give off about ourselves, in photos and e-mails and MySpace pages and all the rest of it, has dramatically increased our social visibility and made it easier for us to find each other but also to be scrutinized in public” (11-12).

Lewinsky became an internet sensation through no fault of her own.  While some may take exception to her actions, she did not seek out the attention of others online.  But what can happen when we upset the internet through our own actions on social media?

Public relations specialist, Justine Sacco was on a business trip when she brought down the wrath of the Internet.  She’d been telling a few jokes to her 170 Twitter followers when she posted a comment that she considered witty at the time.

Sacco's infamous tweet

Sacco’s infamous tweet — Photo credit: The Guardian

She pressed send and boarded her plane to South Africa.  When she arrived eleven hours later, she had received a message from a friend that said only “I am so sorry to see what’s happening” (Ronson par. 5).  Her next message was from her best friend; it said that she needed to call right away—“You are the worldwide number one trending topic on Twitter” (Ronson par. 6).  What Sacco didn’t know was that one of her Twitter followers had forwarded her tweet to a Gawker journalist who then retweeted it to his 15,000 followers.

Jon Ronson, journalist and author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, describes Sacco’s experience as a “horror show” (Ronson par. 7).  Initially, responses to her tweet suggested activism with multiple people suggesting donations to African charities.  Then, public pressure on her employer required the company to respond via Twitter as well, calling her tweet “an outrageous, offensive comment” (Ronson par. 7).

However, as time passed, activism had become entertainment.  People were fascinated by her complete ignorance over the furor she had created.  The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet began trending worldwide.  Twitter users were encouraging people to head to the Cape Town airport in order to catch a glimpse of Sacco as she exited the plane.

Everyone seemed to forget that this wasn’t scripted entertainment.  It was a real-life situation with real-life consequences.  Sacco lost her job and had to relocate in the aftermath of her tweet.

Initially, Sacco attempted to explain her situation—explain what she considered a poorly worded joke.  Since then she has since refused to comment on the event, stating that she’s trying to concentrate on her present and future (Ronson par. 57-58).

Real People Become Virtual Targets

  • Lindsay Stone – a thirty-something-year-old woman who mocked a sign at Arlington National Cemetery.  Stone stood between the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a sign that asked for “Silence and Respect.”  She posed for a photograph, pretending to scream and flashing her middle finger.  A friend posted the picture on Facebook.  Four weeks later, she discovered the existence of a Facebook page named “Fire Lindsay Stone” and fell under a barrage of press coverage.  She was fired from her job working with developmentally disabled adults.  Since her ordeal, she has been diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and insomnia.  She rarely leaves her home (Ronson par. 15-16).
  • Alicia Ann Lynch – a twenty-something-year-old woman who dressed a Boston Marathon bombing survivor for Halloween.  She posted a picture of herself – wearing running gear and splattered with fake blood – to Twitter.  Threats and harassment began almost instantly.  Her personal information was discovered, and threats began to arrive at the homes of her friends and relatives.  She was fired from her job as well (Ronson par. 17).
  • Tyler Clementi – an eighteen-year-old gay man who was publicly outed by his roommate.  His roommate used a webcam to record Clementi while being intimate with another man.  The video was posted on the internet.  Within days, Clementi was being harassed and ridiculed by dozens of online individuals.  To end the torment, Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge in New York City.  He died on impact (Lewinsky).

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, cruelty to others is not a new phenomenon.  However, public shaming has become technologically amplified and permanently accessible.  It extends farther than your hometown, your family, or your community—the entire world can watch you stumble and fall.  Virtual strangers can place you in a online pillory and shower you with hateful words.

It seems that “our social tools are not an improvement to modern society; they are a challenge to it” (Shirky 107).

Works Cited

Glenn, Cheryl. Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.


Lewinsky, Monica. “The Price of Shame.” TED. Web. 17 Sept. 2015. <>.


Ronson, Jon. “Feed Frenzy: How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” New York Times Magazine 12 Feb. 2015. Print.


Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

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