Is Public Shaming on Twitter or Facebook the Proper Punishment?

In my Know More! Reputations program, I have a section called “American Idiots” where I share stories of business executives who have done dumb things online that have cost them business or worse, their careers. It is one of my and my audiences’ favorite parts of the presentation as there are some pretty hilarious examples. Plus, it’s always more fun to laugh at others and their mistakes than to confront our own erroneous ways.

I must admit that I take some pleasure in publicly exposing people who are racist, sexist, and/or who participate in online bullying. In some way, I suppose, it is my passive-aggressive revenge against anyone who was ever cruel to me when I was young.

It’s not only in my presentation where I have experienced joy by exposing stupid online actions. Numerous times during the past few years, when I have seen a rude, crude, and/or inappropriate online post, I have been quick to publicly share the other person’s foolishness. Unlike in my presentation where I sometimes do protect the guilty, because I cannot pixelate out another person’s Facebook page or Twitter profile, when I share someone’s online poor judgement via my social media accounts, I am also sharing that individual’s name, place of work, and oftentimes full contact information with potentially hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have known about the individual’s poor behavior.

Why shouldn’t I publicly call a racist out? Why not expose the sexist executive to the world? Why not embarrass the dunderhead so he never makes the same mistake again?

Yet, I wonder if my participating in “public shaming” is the right choice. For example:
•About two years ago the marketing director for a very high-profile company sent an incredibly racist tweet just prior to boarding an international flight. As she was in the air with no Internet access, her tweet was noticed by the folks at Gawker.com, who shared her message with their hundreds of thousands of followers. Soon Ms. Marketing Director became one of the most popular topics on social media, with her story and contact information being re-tweeted and shared by millions around the globe. By the time her plane landed, there was a crowd gathered at the airport to see if she would be instantly fired from her job. Of course she was.

Fast forward a year and the New York Times Magazine ran a follow-up story about the incident. In the story she shares how – because the incident is the only thing that now appears when someone Googles her name – she cannot get a job, she can’t get a date, and that friends and even family members want nothing to do with her.

There is no excusing her tweet or the harmful words contained within it. She claims she is not a racist and that her message was sent as a joke. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do wonder, what good came from her public shaming? Was anything positive accomplished? How was the world better served by publicly exposing her idiotic behavior?

Would it have been better if someone had sent her a private message sharing how inappropriate her tweet was and asking her to remove it before it became a global phenomenon?

•You may be familiar with Curt Schilling, the World Series winning pitcher and current ESPN baseball commentator. In late February his daughter announced that she would be playing college softball. Like many proud fathers would, Schilling tweeted the great news. What followed was some of the most crude, offensive, triple X-rated comments I have ever seen posted online, all about Schilling’s daughter.

Schilling did not stand idly by. Through a little research he discovered the names of some of the individuals posting the abhorrent words. Schilling then asked his followers to find out where the offenders worked and/or went to school. In no short order some of the individuals were publicly exposed and almost immediately fired from their jobs and kicked out of school.

As a father of a teenage daughter I celebrated Schilling’s actions. I am fairly certain I would have done the same thing in a similar situation. Yet I also wonder if Schilling’s actions were extreme.

People do dumb things. People do really, really, really dumb things in the name of getting a reaction or a laugh. There is zero defense to the poor behavior exhibited online by others related to Schilling’s daughter. The actions were beyond inexcusable.

Yet I also wonder what would have happened if Schilling had contacted each individual and given him the chance to delete his words and genuinely apologize to his daughter? Would there have been a greater lesson learned?

•Two weeks ago Mo’ne Davis showed the sort of empathy and maturity that goes well beyond her years. You may remember Davis, the 13-year old Little League pitcher from Philadelphia who became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. Davis became an instant American hero, she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Disney recently announced that they were going to make a movie about her story.

In response to Disney’s announcement, a Bloomsburg University student and baseball player tweeted that Davis was a “joke” and in his tweet he called Davis a very offensive name. The University immediately kicked the player off of the team. Social media exploded with comments in support of the University’s decision.

Yet it was Davis herself that sent a letter to the school asking that the player be reinstated. In an interview about why she wrote the letter Davis explained, “I know right now he’s really hurt … everyone deserves a second chance.”

Maybe we should all learn from Mo’ne Davis in that, no matter how cruel and offensive a person’s words are, all of us make mistakes, and all of us may deserve a second chance.

There is no defense or excuse for any of the offenders in the previously mentioned stories. Again, the “father side” of my brain would want to do even more than what Schilling did. I felt a twinge of joy exposing the racist comments of a so-called communications expert. Yet in an age where virtually everything done online is archived and searchable forever, is it fair that one mistake – no matter how abhorrent – should temporarily alter a life and permanently damage a reputation?

The next time you see a photo, video, or someone’s comment online that you think is demeaning, cruel, or inappropriate, what will you do? Will you broadcast the information in an attempt to publicly shame the offender? Or will you privately reach out to the individual, educate him or her, and ask that the offensive message be removed and an apology offered?

I can honestly tell you that I do not know what I will do, especially if the victim of any online bullying or cruelty is someone I care deeply about. However, I do believe that with certainty, I will give pause prior to any action that I take and ask myself: “Does the punishment of possible lifetime and permanent shame fit the crime of temporary idiocy?”

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