Shame On You, Shame On Me
Fairlady|May 2020
Public shaming is nothing new, really. In the old days you would have been locked in the town square stocks for minor transgressions like swearing or drunkenness, or been made to don a dunce cap for acting out at school. (Those were still around in some parts of the US as recently as the 1950s, believe it or not.) But the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the ’90s kickstarted a new form of online vigilantism that has only gathered strength with the advent of social media. In the two decades that have passed since her affair went viral, a culture of shaming and public humiliation has woven itself into the fabric of society, creating what Monica describes as ‘a mob of virtual stone throwers’.
Catherine French

'I don’t even know how to begin to describe what it was. But to see my face on TV, to read my name in the newspaper? People have no idea what this has done,’ says Monica Lewinsky

in a 1999 interview, choking back tears. ‘That behind the name “Monica Lewinsky” there is a person, there is a family and there has been so much pain that has been caused by all of this. It was so destructive. It was so destructive.’

If you were too young to have watched the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolding, you would almost certainly have seen the memes or wryly shaken your head at comedy skits at her expense. Her black beret became iconic, the symbol of a fallen woman torn to pieces by media that was fuelled by the boost of technology and the ability to spread news at a rate not yet witnessed before. ‘At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss,’ says Monica, in her 2015 TedTalk, The Price of Shame. ‘And at the age of 24, I learnt the devastating consequences.’ She describes herself as ‘patient zero, the first to lose a personal reputation on a global scale, almost instantaneously’.

SPREADING LIKE WILDFIRE

In December 2013, 30-year-old senior director of corporate communications at InterActiveCorp Justine Sacco was on a flight to South Africa. Before her plane departed, she tweeted, ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!’

In July 2015, Walter Palmer, a US trophy hunter whose preferred weapon was a bow and arrow, wounded and later killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

And in August 2018, Adam Catzavelos videoed himself on a beach in Greece saying, ‘Let me give you a weather forecast here: blue skies, beautiful day, amazing sea and not one k****r in sight.’

What could these three stories possibly have in common with Monica Lewinsky’s? It’s simple: a single action resulted in catastrophic fallout for each of these individuals. And it would have been impossible without social media.

Monica describes how she was branded ‘a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and “That Woman”’ – and how she struggled to find a job for years afterwards. She lost her reputation and dignity, and was never able to escape a decision she made at 22 years old – one that would define her for the rest of her life.

Justine’s tweet went viral. #HasJustineLandedYet trended worldwide and her thoughtless words resulted in her being fired.

Web users uncovered Walter’s personal information, including details about his family. His private dental practice was identified and targeted, and thousands of negative reviews were posted on various platforms until the practice had to close its doors temporarily. The words ‘Lion Killer’ were spray-painted on the garage door of his Florida vacation home and at least seven pickled pigs’ feet were left outside his residence. People publicly made threats of physical violence on his practice’s Facebook page and via Twitter.

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