It’s a sad truth, but in the cruel new world of the Internet, tragic stories of social media shaming that drives teenagers or young adults to suicide have already become the norm.
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The phenomenon of Internet-fueled, high-speed public humiliation has become so widespread that former President Bill Clinton’s infamous paramour Monica Lewinsky launched a crusade against the cruel new public culture in which “no one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet, where gossip, half-truths, and lies take root and fester” and confesses, that she considered taking her life at one point.
A book recently published by journalist Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” offers “a tour through a not-necessarily-brave new world where faceless commenters wield the power to destroy lives and careers, where the punishments often outweigh the crimes” and also includes instances where victims of shaming were driven to suicide.
Unfortunately, 47-year-old government clerk Ariel Runis never had the chance to read the Ronson book, hear the Lewinsky pep talk, or understand that he was not alone in his suffering before putting a gun to his head as a result of a Facebook post that painted him as a racist. The online accusation, which spread like wildfire across media platforms in this small country, turned him into an unwilling celebrity. It was too much for him to bear.
The story of Runis - no vulnerable teen or unstable 20-something - taking his own life over the weekend made front-page news in Israel and sparked a national debate over the outsized power of the Internet and social media. It drove grandstanding politicians to promise to push forward stronger defamation laws to protect people from such shaming and to pressure platforms like Facebook to take greater responsibility for the lives that are damaged on their bandwidth - though few took them seriously.
It all started last Wednesday when a black mother of three felt deeply frustrated while trying to get a passport. As she described it - she was shunted aside while other women with children were given special treatment. When she went to Runis to for assistance, she recounted: “He told me that if I was complaining about discrimination, I should ‘Get the heck out of his face’.”
Her angry post charging Runis with racism made its way across the Internet - moving from Facebook to Twitter and WhatsApp - grabbing thousands of likes and shares. It was quickly picked up by the mainstream press and television stations, earger not to miss out on the clicks the social media posts were getting. The venom of the posts and the comments criticizing Runis - fueled by recent racial tensions in Israel - made the original post look mild and soft-spoken.
When he finally posted a response, Runis himself offered a different version of events. The woman, he claimed, had refused to wait on line, demanded special treatment and wanted to push ahead of other mothers with children. He insisted that the way she was treated had nothing to do with the color of her skin. Not everything “could be chalked up to racism” he wrote.
But, by that point, it was too late - every derogatory share of the post was “like a sharpened arrow piercing my skin.” He said that his life’s work - which included activism for social justice and equality - had been “erased with one stroke.” Less than three days after the original post, thousands of shares and an avalanche of mainstream media coverage - he shot himself.
The aftermath was disappointing. Instead of taking a sober moment to contemplate the seriousness of Internet shaming, the powerful weapon was turned like a boomerang on the woman who posted the complaints in the first place. She followed up with a post expressing sadness that, after “experiencing discrimination” in Israel for years, speaking out against it should have had such tragic consequences.
While we don’t know whether there were other demons haunting Runis, which may have driven his to such a desperate act, one would imagine that there must have been some. What we do know is that there have already been too many victims of the public shaming, which has become a highly problematic fact of life in our digital age.
Israel - which prides itself on being such a mecca of high-tech expertise, a “Start-Up Nation” and global cyber superpower - has just learned a humbling lesson. When it comes to coping with the human price of all of this exciting new communication technology and remembering there are real human beings behind the screens and keyboards - we, too, are still helpless newbies.