What happens when public shaming, virtue and digital mobs collide

Public shaming is a relatively new form of mass social justice where virtual lynch mobs act as social media judge, jury and executioner, but is it a force for good?

When the ball tampering scandal broke this year it felt like everyone was glued to the story. Even people who previously couldn’t give two runs about cricket relished the unfolding drama. And it made for compelling viewing. The attempt to cheat was so blatant and clumsy. The footage was so clearly damning. Perhaps most importantly, there was no ambiguity about the act itself. Cheating is wrong. It’s a lesson you learn early in life, and that is reinforced time and time again. And so, the ball tampering scandal began an online epidemic of virtue signalling.

Virtue signalling is a way of showing others how virtuous you are; and tends to be more performative than genuine. Think along the lines of getting a take-away coffee and climbing into your gas-guzzling SUV with the AC on and the windows down, settling in to enjoy the music of Chris Brown, but it’s okay — you’re using a KeepCup.

While virtue signalling itself is yet to be the subject of rigorous scientific research, moral self-licensing (a close relation) is relatively well understood. Moral self-licensing is a psychological phenomenon whereby previous good deeds make people more likely to engage in future poor behaviour. In the case of the ball tampering scandal virtue signalling about the inherent wrongness of the act (literal outcries of “won’t someone think of the children?!”), seemed to give people the right to then heap shame upon the cricketers involved.

And heap shame they did. Piles of the stuff. When searching the academic literature for the latest scientific studies related to shaming, the results mostly relate to the use of shaming to publicise human rights violations and force positive social change. Look only a little deeper though and you discover an emerging body of knowledge regarding public shaming.

Fans of pop-science author Jon Ronson will be familiar with his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson addresses public shaming as a form of mass social justice and documents some extreme accounts of lives ruined by the phenomenon. For example, the story of Justine Sacco, publicist and low-key Twitter user. Sacco tweeted a mildly offensive joke to her 170 followers before getting on an 11-hour flight. When her flight landed, Sacco discovered she was the number one worldwide trend on Twitter. Googled 1.2 million times in a matter of days, her employer’s website was attacked — and told the attack would stop when she was fired. She was. Public lynch mob: 1; Sacco: 0.

Social media and other online forums provide the perfect medium for public shaming, offering physical distance and relative anonymity — Cambridge Analytica debacle notwithstanding. However, with a large majority of the Western world having access to the internet and Facebook alone approaching 2 billion users, what factors can predict who will engage in public shaming?

Recent research published in Computers in Human Behaviour identifies that individuals who perceive themselves to have higher socioeconomic status (researcher speak for ‘posh people’) are more likely to have a higher desire to exert social control via public shaming, than those who perceive themselves to have lower SES. The same piece of research also found that people who believe in the ‘just world hypothesis’, or that the world is a fair place in which everyone gets what they deserve, are also more likely to engage in public shaming.

So did those cricketers deserve what they got? Have we gone too far when Steve Smith breaks down crying on TV? Have we gone too far when Darren Lehmann resigns as coach to protect his family from the backlash? Does public shaming have the power to bring about positive change? Given that public shaming is a social phenomenon in its youth, despite giving a significant nod to the lynch mobs of times past, we might not have these answers for some time.

Perhaps the most important question is, has this article been 667 words of me virtue signalling? I’ll wait for the HR department to tell me I’m fired to find out.

Dr Jessica L Paterson, Senior Research Fellow, CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

Adelaide In-depth

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