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Putting Public Shaming to Shame

Imagine being just done with your exercise session, a brief walk perhaps. You are standing outside your apartment building catching your breath and the early morning rays. Across the street, you see a man snapping a photo of you with his phone. This image ends up online, and next thing you know, you are public enemy number one - a negligent individual who refuses to wear a mask. Somehow, the public have uncovered your Facebook profile as well, and you are now getting bombarded with hundreds of threatening messages. Your reputation is forever tarnished because of a simple misunderstanding...

Public shaming is nothing new. It has been effectively used as punishment across societies for centuries. Aided by the rise of technology and accessibility of information, public shaming has evolved and moved on from pillories to social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram now all serve as the modern mediums through which digital mob justice is served.

Singapore even has its very own portal for social justice warriors, Stomp, which has over 600,000 likes on Facebook. The phrase “after you kena Stomp” has even become part of the Singaporean consciousness and colloquial vernacular, serving as a warning to others on the risks of being shamed through the platform for their behaviour.

Public shaming has proved itself as a capable deterrent to prevent bad or inappropriate behaviour. It has made a difference to problems such as animal cruelty and copyright issues, while also increasing awareness of social and safety problems. This is evident from the rise of public mask shaming in Singapore, in the wake of COVID-19. Since April 2020, there were 80 reported cases of disputes involving commuters who did not mask up in public, with many of them going viral, and about 40 of them being fined[1].

But it is not without drawbacks. Public shaming has also given rise to modern-day character assassinations, witch hunts and occurrences where decent people are punished for minute transgressions, or for what amounts to no real transgressions at all. Some are even punished for just their opinions. In the end, all it does is create an environment of surveillance, fear and conformity.

The ability to wield such a form of humiliation and the potential cost leads to many questions. Is it a means for positive social change? Or a form of toxic harassment? How does it all play out in Singapore? To find answers, we turn to Dr Brandon Koh, an Industrial-Organisational Psychologist and Lecturer in Human Resource Management at SUSS, to provide insights.

Why do people engage in public shaming?

Koh: In tight cultures such as Singapore, people expect one another to conform to social norms closely and also mete out more punishment for breaking them. Public shaming is a means of informal punishment administered by members of the society to motivate others to adhere to these unwritten rules.

Do you believe that public shaming is harmful, or a necessary action to bring about good?

Koh: The anticipation of being publicly shamed may be a useful deterrent against violating social norms. That said, public shaming can be harmful.

Whilst public shaming is intended at reducing undesired behaviours, the recipient of public shame often suffers a loss of reputation, self-esteem, and sense of belonging to the community. These effects may be long-lasting and disproportionate to the act. For instance, the shamed behaviour may be a single mistake or momentary accident that does not truly reflect a person’s moral character. Yet, when netizens view or react to public shaming social media posts, they may over generalise, condemning the person as a whole. To make matters worse, some netizens may treat such content as light-hearted entertainment and gossip, even though the consequences to the shamed individual are very real. This further exacerbates the negative effects of public shaming.

How has technology and social media changed and enabled public shaming behaviour?

Koh: Firstly, technology and social media platforms can offer people a shroud of anonymity, lowering the barrier to initiate or participate in public shaming. Secondly, follow-up comments often echo the original message whilst those who oppose rarely express their objections. This provides a biased perception that the masses endorse the public shaming of a certain incident or person, which could be untrue. Thirdly, social media magnifies the reach of such public shaming acts to a wider audience.

In short, social media amplifies the negative effects of public shaming. In fact, one might notice the resemblance between public shaming on social media and cyberbullying.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, is shaming those who do not wear a mask on social media a reasonable action? Do you think individuals who engage in public shaming sometimes cross the line when it comes to taking the law into their own hands?

Koh: To be fair, people may express their own opinions on social media platforms. Instead, I would question the newsworthiness and impact of public shaming. As I alluded to earlier, public shaming generates much negativity, causing disproportionate harm to the targeted individual, whilst on-lookers may use these contents for personal entertainment or social gossip. To top it off, public shaming may not even really reduce the undesired norm-breaking behaviour because it reaches a limited audience.

Is public shaming the way forward for keeping the bad behaviour in check

Koh: Certainly not. I hope that we can cultivate positive norm-abiding behaviours through fostering a sense of belonging and shared responsibility in our communities. We can also exemplify desired behaviours through education, cultural teachings, and role models instead of punishing undesirable ones via public shaming.

However one views the act of public shaming, be it as a useful deterrent, cyberbullying in disguise or a slippery slope which requires treading with caution and control, there is no doubt that it is here to stay. While being an activist for a cause or calling someone out on their error may be admirable acts, there is ultimately never a reason to gang up and shame someone online or to support and engage in doxxing.

Jon Ronson perhaps sums it up best in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, stating that “Well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.[2]” We have to know and do better. It is important to keep our own behaviour in check and not engage in public shaming. If not, what does it actually say of us?

[1] Straits Times (AUG 2020) About 80 disputes over mask-wearing on public transport since April, 40 people fined

[2] New York Times (APR 2015) Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

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