Viewpoint

No one gets your jokes online

The recent scandal around British biologist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who had to resign from several posts because of alleged sexist remarks at a science journalists’ conference, has spotlighted an issue that has been the cause of growing concern: the power of the Internet mob.

Hunt’s comments about his trouble with romantic attractions in the laboratory created a Twitter storm that turned the 72-year-old scientist into a misogynist caricature before he could explain himself. It’s a familiar scenario now, explored in British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”

Social media shaming has resulted in ruined careers and lost lives. Can we do anything to curb it – and should we?

Public shaming is as old as humanity. Its sting was reduced by the anonymity of urban and suburban living that has replaced the tightly knit community of small towns and villages. But at least the gossips in a traditional village knew the person they were shaming and were less likely to blow one act out of proportion. The social media accusers usually know nothing about their target except for the offense.

Perhaps the most egregious example cited by Ronson is that of public relations executive Justine Sacco, whose life was wrecked by a thoughtless tweet sent before a flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco meant to ridicule the cultural arrogance of white Americans, but some didn’t get the joke. The uproar cost Sacco her job and forced her into hiding.

Internet shaming has its defenders. In a Salon.com piece, left-wing commentator Arthur Chu argues that it played a key role in the legalization of same-sex marriage, making people reluctant to support same-sex marriage bans for fear of being “called out” as bigots.

But that’s a dubious argument. The opinion shift had been happening for some time. Indeed, advocates of same-sex marriage were critical of such incidents as the firing of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, who donated to Proposition 8, and the berating of an employee at Chick-fil-A for the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

The destructive power of social media shaming was illustrated in May when Israeli civil servant Ariel Ronis committed suicide after a Facebook post accusing him of racism toward a black Israeli woman waiting for a passport was shared by thousands.

Given the paramount value we place on freedom of speech, it would be neither possible nor desirable to curb social media shaming. Journalists who amplify dubious charges should face professional consequences. As for others, one possible solution is to shame the shamers, exposing those who recklessly pass on unreliable information or gang up on people for trivial reasons.

The best answer to free speech is more speech.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Newsday.

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