The Problem With Online ‘Perv-Shaming’

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By Caroline Kent | 5:13 pm, November 1, 2016
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Gropes are going viral. But are social media creep shamers performing a public duty to rid us of perverts or are their good intentions misguided?

It’s increasingly common for women to strive for their own version of social justice by photographing “pervy” guys in public them and publishing their grievances on Twitter and Facebook.

Last weekend, a woman turned to Twitter after allegedly being “grabbed and stroked” by a stranger on an airplane leaving Austin, Texas. Receiving little support from the airline and law enforcement, who told her that sexual battery was “not exactly the crime of the century,” Ariana Lenarsky tweeted a photo of him.

“If I want to press charges, I’d have to fly back to Austin on my dime, since it’s Austin PD’s jurisdiction. I don’t want to do that,” Ariana tweeted. “By sharing this story, I believe I have inadvertently illuminated that the process of reporting assault is broken. No one—from Twitter all the way up to the FBI—has a clear, just and efficient protocol for how to handle sexual assault and battery.”

Fellow users responded by retweeting the photo over 13,000 times, spreading the face of the accused man across the globe in a matter of hours.

Hashing out accusations on social media is getting increasingly common. Many social media vigilantes believe they are rightfully performing a service for society, filling a vacuum left by passive law-enforcers and drawing attention to a widespread under-publicized issue.

But many men argue that it’s unfair and libelous. “What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’” one tweeter replied to Lenarsky, “What if someone is falsely accused?”

Social media’s popularity is based on encouraging information to be shared without fact checking first. Twitter has been criticized for refusing to regulate everyone from harassing trolls to ISIS recruiters. But they aren’t held liable if they fail to rein in bullies, defamers or shamers.

In 1995 Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which protects website hosts from defamation claims. People who believe they have been defamed on social media have to bring a claim against the specific user and prove that their statement wasn’t true.

John Seay, founder of Atlanta-based The Seay Firm, explored the legalities of Lenarsky’s social ‘shoot and shame’: “In a public space you generally don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

“Falling down drunk on a public pavement? You’re generally fair game for photos. If he suddenly makes a defamation claim or denies the allegations in a way that antagonizes Ariana, she could always decide to press charges in the criminal realm as well as pursue civil damages.

“Truth is an absolute defense to defamation and legally Ariana has a strong first amendment right to tell her story; ‘sexual assault’ is considered a matter of public concern and newsworthy.”

Lenarsky tweeted the details surrounding the incident transparently, and said that she hoped her “harasser” gets help. Her “shaming” appeared to be a last resort when the conventional avenues for seeking reassurance and help were deemed dissatisfactory. Following her tweet the airline sent her flight credit to return to Austin to press charges if she wanted to.

One could argue that shame only really works when a shamed person is ushered by the wider community towards a more honorable level of understanding. Online, there is little guarantee of this. A virtual wrist-slap might never touch the perpetrator, let alone ensure they are educated to behave more appropriately in future.

Much moral indignation online (the endless retweeting) prioritizes a short-term vent (“Look at me! I did my bit!”) over actually creating sustainable social progress. And while social media shaming may seek to help redress a power imbalance, the line between igniting debate and unleashing an indignant self-righteous mob is extremely thin when a comment goes viral.

It’s long been the norm for moral conduct in communities to be regulated by shaming. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed investigated why ‘sanctioned shaming tactics’ (such as town square stocks) have been discontinued throughout history.

“I didn’t find a single document that said, ‘We need to stop these public shamings because they’re useless,’” Ronson said, “but I found a lot of documents from religious leaders, from the court, and founding fathers all of whom were saying, ‘we need to stop this stuff, it’s monstrous.’ Good people in the crowd were becoming brutal—the punishments were disproportionate to the crimes.”

Recently, Heat Street wrote about a man in Australia who (it emerged) is autistic and simply wanted a high-five but who was decried on social media as a typical public transport harasser.

I have to wonder if people are getting off on playing judge and jury to their fellow citizens. After all. social platforms have made us all ‘content creators’ or ‘citizen journalists’ but are we all too quick to jump on a bandwagon of outrage without a proper verification of the facts?

It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of online shaming—I’ve done plenty of it myself. If you’ve been groped, followed or threatened, a quick tweet is certainly more appealing than the idea of devoting hours to a predominantly male police station when the likelihood of the incident being resolved is low, bordering on non-existent.

But an offline problem needs an offline solution. As long as we continue to debate these things online, in real life all we are doing is spinning our wheels.