Web Wanders: Judgment and justice

Just two weeks ago, Monica Lewinsky, who first came into the public eye in the late 90's due to a sex scandal linking her to then US president, Bill Clinton, gave a TED talk entitled The Price of Shame.

In her speech, which lasted around 22 minutes, Lewinsky discussed the damaging effects of cyber bullying, relating it to the personal humiliation she experienced in the wake of the scandal.

She explained that public shaming, especially the kind that goes on in the digital realm, is a commodity through which money is made at the expense of someone else's suffering.

Calling for a cultural revolution, she encouraged her audience to develop an attitude of compassion and empathy instead. To become an upstander, not a mere bystander whenever faced with instances of bullying in the digital realm.

"We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression," Lewinsky said, provoking the thoughts of her listeners even further by asking them to "imagine walking a mile in someone else's headline".

Careless words

It isn't Lewinsky alone whose life has been severely impacted by ruthless public scrutiny in cyberspace.

Back in February, I also read of the story of Justine Sacco, formerly a senior director of corporate communications at Internet company, IAC (InterActiveCorp).

During a trip to South Africa, she tweeted the following: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!". She had probably meant it all in jest, but a lot of people online did not find her words amusing.

In the 11 hours that it took her to fly from London to Cape Town, things began to explode on Twitter. Many had taken offence in her tweet, with tens of thousands of furious users tweeting in response. A hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet began surfacing on social media, with plenty of sarcasm to boot.

Her extended family had already learned about the online incident by the time she arrived at the family home. In fact, the entire debacle had also come to the attention of her employer and she was eventually fired from her job.

It was another case of mass online destruction, which, while being a relatively frequent occurrence in our everyday Internet musings, had serious repercussions on Sacco's personal life.

Similar to Lewinsky's experience, complete strangers had taken it upon themselves to pass judgment on someone else they did not know at all.

Shaming and blaming

We in Malaysia have our own share of such quirky virtual episodes.

Most of us would still remember the road bully incident that took place in Kuantan last July involving 30 year old Siti Fairrah Ashykin Kamaruddin (more widely known in the media and online as Kiki) and Sim Siak Hong, 68.

After a video was uploaded on Facebook showing Kiki berating Sim for having damaged her car in a minor accident, netizens were abuzz with negative comments about her behaviour. Consequently, the hashtag #CDM25, which represented Kiki's car number plate, was created on the Web and it became the platform for Malaysians to express their opinion on the incident.

But that wasn't all there was to it.

Some netizens felt compelled to take things even further through doxxing (an Internet practice where personal information about a specific individual is researched and broadcasted widely on the Internet). These self-righteous virtual vigilantes decided to expose Kiki's job, workplace and even her residence to the rest of the social media community, all with the intention of shaming her for her road bullying behaviour.

It's become so easy nowadays to do this: to exact justice as we see fit from behind the comforts of our mobile devices. It may seem like the right thing to do, since public humiliation does have the effect of making some wrongdoers turn from their evil ways.

But under what circumstances does it become appropriate to punish another's mistakes by performing malicious deeds of our own?

Self righteous stance

Undoubtedly, for each of the three scenarios I've discussed, someone had obviously made a mistake. An error in judgement, which most times, the offender ends up being remorseful for in the end.

What's troubling about these incidents isn't so much what those people had done wrong, but rather, the way the online community has passed judgment on them. Viewed in retrospect, the backlash that took place on the Web can be said to amount to online harassment.

It's somewhat alarming to see just how commonplace these kinds of actions have become in the Internet-centric society that we live in today.

On the surface, it might seem to us like a noble thing to do to mete out justice in this way. However, the truth is that none of us are perfect. In fact, I'm sure we'd all want others to show us compassion during the times when we fall short.

Hence, I'd like to encourage us to remember to exercise restraint in the way we interact on the Web, especially when responding to incidents involving people whom we don't actually know. Just because these things are taking place in cyberspace does not make the damage it causes as a result any less serious.

It's important not to lose sight of the things that make us human. Because after all, that's what all of us are.

Susanna Khoo is deeply concerned at the ruthlessness and lack of compassion she often witnesses online. She hopes to improve her own conduct on social media platforms and beyond, and sincerely hopes you will too. Share your thoughts with her on this matter by writing to her at susanna@thestar.com.my.

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