Shaming in Social Media: A New Weapon of Mass Destruction

Those concerned about freedom of expression, who want to preserve social media, must lead the charge for an ethic of restraint in social media posts.

Yuval Karniel
Yuval Karniel
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Ariel Runis, Interior Ministry official who committed suicide in 2015 after being accused of racism in a viral Facebook post.
Ariel Runis, Interior Ministry official who committed suicide in 2015 after being accused of racism in a viral Facebook post. Credit: Facebook
Yuval Karniel
Yuval Karniel

Shaming through the use of defamation on social networks reached its new and inevitable peak over the weekend in Israel: The suicide of Ariel Runis, a senior official in the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, as a result of a Facebook post in which a woman accused Runis of denying her equal treatment in the agency’s office because of the color of her skin.

This is not the first case of suicide as a result of posts on the Internet, and also not an exceptional case of shaming. The phenomenon has become very common, and has received significant publicity in Israel in the wake of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer, when many people were attacked when they disagreed with the majority opinion; and also as a result of continued postings about the proverbial “ugly Israeli,” which started with the “chocolate flight” clip showing Israeli airplane passengers losing control after not being allowed to buy duty-free chocolates.

Shaming on social networks is a relatively new phenomenon, which provides a difficult challenge to the supporters of the freedom of expression. The publicizing of vilification and slander in the mass media has always existed, and it harms the spirit and reputation of the person targeted. But it seems there is something new and much more dangerous here. This is a new species – a new kind of post in a new medium with new victims, who are exposed to harm that could cause exceptionally harsh trauma.

For the first time, private individuals are liable to be attacked not by a single journalistic report, but by hundreds and thousands of posts. Most of the posters are identified by name and photo, some of them we know personally and maybe even admire. They attack the victim in a rage while posting slander, curses and vicious incitement, which accumulate without pause, without limits.

This is not at all similar to the publication of libel we were acquainted with in the past. It is not a case of a journalist of media outlet that has an address, editor in chief or publisher who can discuss the matter with us, who can correct mistakes, whom we can ask for an apology or sue. Social media shaming is a kind of hydra-headed monster, and the victim could very well experience it as a genuine mass assault.

The victims are usually private citizens – not the types whose profession requires them to know how to deal with the media. Even for those with media experience, it is hard to deal with accusatory posts, but that is part of their job and they get used to it. But a private citizen never imagines that he or she will become the subject of a media attack.

This combination of surprise and intensity of attack could very well cause what seems like post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health professionals have already started researching the issue, but it will take a lot more time before we know the results. .

This is somewhat reminiscent of the outbreak of anorexia, which today many view as being caused by the mass media and the way the female body is represented in film, television and advertising. Many years passed before the media acknowledged their responsibility, and the regulators have started to intervene in the ways the female body is presented in advertising. It would seem that in the case of social media shaming, we cannot allow ourselves to wait so long.

It is difficult to assess how many people will have extreme responses to such shaming, but it is clear that for every person who commits suicide there are many who experience humiliation and real psychological damage. There is room here, too, for a new approach to damages awarded in libel lawsuits growing out of social media attacks. It is no longer just a matter of damage to reputation, image and dignity, but a real threat of psychological harm, to the point of debilitation.

It is actually those among us who are concerned about the freedom of expression, as I am, and want to preserve social media as a tool to publicize criticism, opinions and important facts, who need to lead the demand for an ethic of restraint in social media posts. Caution in the initial publication, as well as restraint in distribution and response, are urgently called for. The town square must not be turned into a chopping block.

Dr. Karniel is an expert in communications and law and teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.