A Vancouver Canucks fan waving a flag, obscuring his face

On Public Shaming

A few weeks ago Vancouver experienced some rioting. The riots, and the ensuing reaction, spurred on a lot of talk about the role of public shaming, particularly via social media like Facebook or The Twitter. The issue, as I’m sure you can imagine, is divisive.

For those unfamiliar, I’ll recount the facts. Following the loss of the local hockey team, riots broke out in downtown Vancouver (the connection between the two has been hotly debated). There was a fair amount of damage to people, property and (rightly or wrongly) the reputation of the city of Vancouver.

Needless to say, Vancouverites were not pleased.

Filled with a righteous rage and desiring justice or retribution, numerous people took to the web and began identifying those appearing to be caught in an act of wrongdoing. The sea of cameras surveying the scene provided ample source material. Before long, faces were being tied to names. And phone numbers. And home addresses. Parents, employers and schools were being contacted and told of the poor behaviour with which they were now associated.

Some went further. Threats were issued, family harassed, vitriol spewed.

At this point, we are likely asking similar questions: what is the place of public shaming? Is it an appropriate reaction to events such as these? Should it be encouraged, moderated, or disallowed?

For the purpose of this discussion, when I refer to “public shaming”, I am referring to the naming and calling-out of individuals using social media. That is, I include the kind of speedy dissemination of information that the Internet makes possible. I do not include threats or harassment, which are neither public nor shaming.

Being a legal beagle, my first thoughts went to the law. I’ll spare you the analysis and just say that I think that it is probably legal in British Columbia to post photos of the riots and attach names to faces (although be sure to read my disclaimer before you attach any weight to that opinion).

But legality is not coextensive with our social ideals. Even if something is legal, it may be preferable to caution against it. Accordingly, I have prepared a survey of the pros and cons of public shaming, as I see them.

Pro: Information as Punishment

I’ll admit that I do not come to this as a clean slate. When I first heard of the public shaming that was occurring, I was an enthusiastic supporter. After all, what’s not to like? Offended citizens band together to shine a light on misbehaviour – responding to misdeeds by telling the world about them. It’s a non-violent, information-based, socially-driven mechanism to punish wrongdoers. On the face of it, public shaming appears elegant, enlightened and just.

Pro: Power to the People

Public shaming is socially-driven; it allows society to enforce strongly-held norms (like “don’t trash the downtown”) organically, without a legal or bureaucratic superstructure. It lets ordinary people have a say in ordering their own society. That’s empowering. This is especially valuable after an event like a riot, which may leave many people feeling impotent.

Pro: It Just Might Work

I’ll say right up front that I haven’t seen any statistics that speak for or against the effectiveness of public shaming. But it seems like it has a good shot at acting as a disincentive against antisocial activities. I don’t think that I’m the first one to think so. After all, using social media for the purpose of public shaming is basically crowd-sourcing the Panopticon. The possibility of being recorded might help some ne’er-do-wells think twice before bashing in a window. China sure seems to think so.

I mention this despite the much-publicized herd instinct that can kick in during events like riots. Some rioters may be operating at diminished mental capacity, but they are still conscious, and a disincentive may still serve to dissuade some.

The factors above paint a pretty rosy picture of public shaming, or at least its potential. But there is a less-appealing side.

Con: Inviting Disaster

As I mentioned above, the retribution in Vancouver did not stop with shaming. Publicizing someone’s misdeeds doesn’t just inform their soon-to-be-disappointed (but otherwise harmless) family and friends. Everyone in the public knows or is capable of knowing. This includes the violent or unbalanced fringe. And worse, this being the internet, that publication doesn’t go away. It just sits there, waiting for someone to get the wrong idea.

This presents a sticky question about responsibility. Do you bear an obligation not to post a photo and a name if there is a likelihood that an unhinged individual might use it for illegal harassment? Even if you aren’t legally responsible for those actions (and again, I’m not saying you won’t be), is it right to turn a blind eye to the danger that you may be placing another person into? One might argue, in counterpoint, that newspapers publish photos of accused persons in high-profile criminal cases, but I don’t know if this is analogous to a proper criminal trial (for reasons that will be illustrated in the next point).

Con: No Doubts for the Unreasonable

Emotions run high in the wake of a upsetting event like a riot. People, caught up in feelings of anger and helplessness, look for someone to blame and/or punish. In such a climate, evidentiary standards have a habit of slipping. We run the risk of targeting individuals who appear to be guilty of some indiscretion but, upon closer inspection, are innocent (or guilty of some lesser wrongdoing).

Moreover, we may punish individuals for the sins of the mob – persons posing in front of blazing police cars may be guilty of poor taste, but not necessarily the ignition. Such fine distinctions may be lost in the impassioned minds of the righteously-tagging. This is plainly unjust.

Con: Power to the Majority

The problem with giving power to the people is that not all people are empowered equally. Public shaming is a communal act that requires a critical mass to be effective. Those of us who are neither violent nor anarchists likely have no qualms with shaming violent anarchists (if the news is to believed and such people are truly to blame). But public shaming is not restricted to riots. What if the passion of the majority were to turn to a different event, like a pro-choice or pro-life demonstration? Or a pride parade? Or worshiping in a mosque?

This concern is, at its core, the classic slippery slope argument. But as well-worn as it may be, it still bears some relevance to this issue. It’s easy to endorse something if you believe that it will never turn against your interests, but with public shaming you can only have such surety if you belong to no minority groups. Giving power to the people sounds great, in theory, but in practice “the people” have no procedural controls or oversight to protect the vulnerable (unless you include some sort of basic level of human decency, which I do not ascribe to the mob).

I Have a Point, Honest

As I mentioned above, when I first heard of the recent spate of online public shaming I was all for it. In theory, it is elegant, empowering and effective. On further reflection, however, I came to realize that it also has the potential to invite violence, punish the innocent and reinforce hegemony.

I like to think that I’m a practical sort of guy. I’m not trying to inject privacy concerns into an area where normally we would not find them (such as riots in public spaces) based on some sort of blind, ideological dedication to privacy as a concept. I, like most people, want the guilty to be punished and the innocent to be protected. I want safety and social order to be maintained. I want justice to be served.

I’m just not sure that public shaming is a practical way to get those things.

In my view, the dangers of public shaming (at least as I have defined it) outweigh the benefits. It is a venture just waiting for dramatic errors and abuses. The processes of the criminal justice system, albeit slower and costlier than crowd-sourcing, are more likely to produce the sort of careful, reasonable results that we as a society typically prize. And for those things that we want to shame that the criminal justice system does not restrict, we should be even more cautious before adopting mass vigilanteism (even if our parts in it are non-violent).

For these reasons, I think that we, as a society, should discourage the practice of public shaming. Despite (and indeed because of) how much we may want it in our moments of passion.

What About You?

Do you have any thoughts on the issue? Are you for or against public shaming? Or are you in-between, or undecided? Has your opinion changed since you first learned of it?