Cyber Shame and Instant Fame

Monica Lewinsky on Cyberbullying

By Katie O’Brien


Until last year, I’d never really given much thought to what it’s like to be Monica Lewinsky. As someone too young to remember her original capitulation into infamy, “Monica Lewinsky” was just a name I heard sometimes in jokes, a symbol referring to Bill Clinton’s scandal and impeachment, a pop culture reference evoking an image of promiscuity. But last year, after about a decade of avoiding the public eye, Lewinsky started speaking out about her experiences and using her platform to condemn the toxic culture of public shaming on the internet. Now I have a lot of sympathy for Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old whose private life was made public after being swept into an affair with a man who happened to be the President of the United States. And more importantly, I have a lot of respect for Monica Lewinsky, the 41-year-old who is reclaiming the narrative that exploded beyond her control and using her experiences to talk about a pervasive issue in our culture.

In March 2015, Lewinsky gave a TED talk in which she calls herself “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” She explains how the story broke online in a media industry that was still mostly print-based, and how the scandal caused a response that was unprecedented in its speed and scope thanks to technology. She describes the mass of cruel and humiliating online articles, photos, comments, and emails, in which she was “branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman.’” This widespread scrutiny and humiliation sent Lewinsky into a spiral of depression that made her mother afraid to leave her bedside at night, and made it impossible for her to leave her house due to harassment. She shares these experiences not to pander for sympathy, but to give a backdrop for the devastating effects of the online culture of public shaming that started with her and has exploded ever since.

Lewinsky’s speech is an important reminder of the consequences of cyberbullying. Internet displays of private information, she points out, were not yet common when it happened to her, but now it happens everyday. In her speech, she points out that this can happen to people whether or not they actually make a mistake, but focuses on situations in which the person in question had done absolutely nothing wrong. She references the devastating story of Tyler Clementi, a college freshman who took his own life in 2010 after his roommate secretly recorded and streamed online Clementi being intimate with another man, which led to public humiliation and ridicule among his classmates. This example is the type of horrifying and disgusting situation where the victim did nothing wrong, but was targeted through cyberbullying regardless. It is important that the spotlight stays on cyberbullying cases like these, and Lewinsky is definitely coming from a place that makes her qualified to bring attention to them. But Lewinsky also makes the distinction between her case and Clementi’s— she recognizes that she made a mistake— which makes me think about the role of shaming when the public largely agrees that the shame-ee has done something heinous.

“She shares these experiences not to pander for sympathy, but to give a backdrop for the devastating effects of the online culture of public shaming that started with her and has exploded ever since.”

I read a New York Times article a little while ago about Justine Sacco, a senior communications professional who in 2013 posted a single tweet to her 170 Twitter followers that changed her life: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” We don’t need to talk about all the things wrong with that or speculate as to why someone who works in PR would think it was a good idea to post such a thing. That being said, the fallout that followed was crazy—a perfect example of the rabid culture of online shaming that Lewinsky condemns. The Times article describes Sacco’s landing in Cape Town after an 11-hour flight. As soon as she turned on her phone she was met with an influx of texts and notifications telling her that she was currently the number one trend on Twitter. Besides thousands of angry and threatening tweets, she found that #hasjustinelandedyet was trending and that people around the world eagerly awaited her reaction, some even going to the airport to take pictures when she landed. I can remember reading about the tweet when it happened a couple years ago, and I think my only reaction was “Wow, what a stupid thing to say,” and the internet fallout over it didn’t seem surprising or concerning. But in the aftermath, Sacco lost her job, continued to be harassed online and offline for months and even moved out of the U.S. for a little while. While her tweet was dumb, I don’t think she deserved to have her life ruined over it, and I don’t think we need to immediately condemn anyone who says something ignorant as a terrible person who deserves to be shamed and called out in the most public way possible.

But some instances are more even more morally complicated. In the case of the recent viral video of Oklahoma University’s chapter of SAE singing a terrifyingly racist and violent chant, the attention garnered by the video caused the University to take swift action in dismantling the fraternity and expelling the student instigators. Online shaming certainly sent a message about what will and will not be tolerated, and the reaction to this incident showed that racist sentiments like that are zero-tolerance offenses. When I think about the kids in the video, sometimes I think they got what they deserved, but sometimes I feel bad that they never got the chance to become better people on their own before being branded by their own ignorance forever.

To use another recent example from the headlines, I find it impossible to muster even that shred of sympathy in the case of Ray Rice, who was publicly shamed when a video was released of him knocking out his fiancee in an elevator. It became evident that the NFL only punished him for fear of bad PR, so the shaming was not only justified but had a beneficial outcome. However, it had unintended consequences for his fiancee, Janay Palmer, who became famous in a way she did not ask for, the scrutiny and attention now toward her. That video of her unconscious in an elevator is forever attached to her own name, not just to her now-husband’s.

Maybe some things—like racism and abuse—are so toxic that they should be destroyed at whatever cost, even if that means ruining the reputations of a few people age 18 to 22, or forcing the victim of abuse to relieve it repeatedly. But it’s hard to know where to draw the line. I think the ultimate difference between these cases and the ones Monica Lewinsky refers to in her speech is that offenses like SAE’s and Ray Rice’s evoke such emotion that it moves beyond mindless public shaming to genuine shock and outrage. In extreme cases, mass shaming could help make sexism, homophobia and racism shameful and taboo things that will ruin the perpetrator’s reputation, not the victim’s.

What we need to be more conscious about are the instances of cyberbullying and public shaming where the perceived offenses are much more human and minor, and where there is no wrongdoing at all. In these cases, rather than checking truly bad behavior and instigating real desire for change, the internet backlash becomes just a petty game.

There’s some type of sick pleasure and fascination in reading about other people’s wrongdoing and humiliation. The media industry plays into this by posting headlines that shame individuals to garner clicks and views, and the related content and comments are attached to the shame-ee’s name forever—it’s the modern day equivalent of a scarlet letter. So I think Monica Lewinsky’s call for empathy and compassion is spot on. There is always a real person behind the screen who is being shamed and humiliated, and while it’s easy to gleefully latch onto someone’s perceived wrongdoing and laugh at them from a pedestal, that doesn’t mean it is right to do so. Before joining in on the gleeful bashing and stone-throwing, I think we should first try to imagine that it was us, and second, remember that one wrong move in the right place, and it easily could be.

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