It’s a shame: The rise of bullying on the Internet and the new legal landscape.

N. Tucker Meneely//June 25, 2015

It’s a shame: The rise of bullying on the Internet and the new legal landscape.

By N. Tucker Meneely

//June 25, 2015

Since the advent of social media, there has been a meteoric rise in a relic from our past — public shaming. The ease with which a once-private individual can have his or her personal information splashed across computer screens throughout the world is frightening. If you are on social media — and I’ll assume that, as a young lawyer, you are — you probably see examples of this on a daily basis, where private citizens have the ire of the Internet (or a faction thereof) focused upon them for a day or two, and sometimes longer, before they vanish into the ether.

Perhaps you remember seeing the picture of Lindsey Stone, the young woman who flashed her middle finger at the Arlington National Cemetery. Maybe you saw the tweet of Justine Sacco trying —and failing — to make a nuanced joke about privilege before boarding a plane to Africa. Most of the time, these stories are in and out of our consciousness before we can click refresh on our newsfeeds.

Did you ever wonder what happened to these people? Jon Ronson did, and he discusses their stories, including the immense public shaming they endured, in his latest, excellent book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” In it, he examines the history of public shaming and the new shape it has taken with the arrival of the Internet and, more recently, social media.

For instance, Lindsey Stone, after the picture she took at Arlington National Cemetery went viral, lost her job due to the national campaign created to have her fired from the nonprofit where she worked. She didn’t leave her house for a year. All of this started because Lindsey and her friend had a running inside joke where they would take silly pictures of each other disobeying signs and post them to their Facebook profiles. Once the Arlington National Cemetery photo went viral, there was no explanation that could stop the anonymous masses that wanted her to lose her job.

Justine Sacco, a 30-year-old woman with 170 Twitter followers at the time, was about to board a plane to Africa when she posted the following tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” As she would later tell Jon Ronson, “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”

But that’s not how the Internet interpreted it. While she was in the middle of her flight, one of her followers alerted blogger Sam Biddle, who retweeted her tweet to his 15,000 followers and posted an article to tech blog Valleywag. Before she landed, she had become the No. 1 worldwide trending topic on Twitter and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet took Twitter by storm. When the masses found out Ms. Sacco was a PR executive, it was all over. She lost her job and endured such public shaming and abuse that Sam Biddle would later publicly apologize for originally alerting the masses to her tweet.

This public shaming doesn’t only occur to individuals who’ve made regrettable mistakes. Sometimes it happens to completely innocent people whose only crime was breaking up with their former boyfriends and girlfriends. As recently highlighted in “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” public shaming can take the form of “revenge porn,” where an individual’s ex-spouse or partner distributes sexually explicit videos or pictures of the individual without his or her consent. As John Oliver shows in the below segment (warning: some explicit language), this can be devastating to someone’s career and personal life and extremely difficult to stop.

The case of revenge porn highlighted by John Oliver actually took place in Maryland, which is one of only 23 states to enact a statute prohibiting revenge porn. That leaves victims of revenge porn in a majority of the country with little to no redress unless they have the financial resources to hire an attorney and, even then, they face an uphill battle.

What the cases highlighted by Jon Ronson and John Oliver demonstrate is that public shaming takes many forms and is extremely difficult to contain. Moreover, it is quite clear that the law has yet to catch up to it. There are significant hurdles, including the lack of laws addressing it, the anonymity of the people handing out the abuse, as well as the interplay of the First Amendment with the need to curtail abuse.

Luckily, many of the social media platforms are addressing the issue head on. Twitter, Reddit, Google+, and Facebook all have policies addressing bullying and harassment. Google has also recently updated its policies to make it easier for victims of revenge porn to have media removed from search results.

One thing is clear: This is an evolving issue, which lawyers are likely going to face more often. We need to be prepared to assist our clients in navigating what is currently a very ambiguous area of law. With ingenuity and hopefully a proactive Legislature, victims of public shaming and abuse will not be so defenseless.


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