This tweet is just one of the many reasons the United Airlines incident is such a disaster for the company. The tweet might or might not be accurate about the release of an app upgrade, but at this point in their PR disaster, it doesn’t really matter. Every aspect of their company is subject to social media shaming because of the passenger being drug off the plane. This apparently has helped to focus the CEO’s understanding that bad news multiplies dramatically on social media, and this shared outrage will effect his monetary bottom line. In this corporate case, I think public shaming serves a purpose, and hopefully helps to change policies in the corporation. Cleverness like this one tweet above, if not snarky and mean, has also been somewhat rewarded in the fact that the CEO has moved away from justifying the incident to giving a full public apology.
The CEO might be personally receiving a big dose of public shaming, but what does that public shaming do when it is heaped on individuals? And why do people take the time and energy to engage in mean, snarky posts. Many times to people they don’t even personally know? Not easy questions to answer, and probably many personality reasons why people do it. The darker side of human nature has always been with us. It appears in the mob mentality that drew crowds to the blood sports of the 2nd century. It appears in the blood-thirsty sense of superiority that brought thousands of people out in early Omaha to watch the brutal lynching of a young, black man, and more recently in crowds shouting to a suicidal person to jump. I think it is that dark side of human nature that comes out in social media attacks.
The wide net of anonymity in social media makes it that much easier to engage in bullying and mob mentality. I would like to think that people who engage in public shaming don’t expect tragic outcomes from what they say. But I wonder if they expect something more than self satisfaction from their posts? Did the cyber mob who attacked the referee, John Higgins, for his officiating at the Kentucky basketball game really want him to loose his business or fear for his life? Did the thousands who posted about Justine Sacco’s racist tweet expect her to loose her PR job at IAC. Maybe John Higgins isn’t the most skilled referee, and maybe Justine Sacco doesn’t really have the temperament to work in public relations, but is it up to a vitriolic, anonymous crowd to decide that? It probably isn’t, but social media is not going away, and neither is the dark side of human nature. Communication is now so interwoven with social media that people will probably never stop using it. So what to do?
As Monica Lewinsky, who was drug through the public muck when her affair with President Clinton was revealed, says, “public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop.” I think the only solution to cyberbullying is similar to the solutions used to deal with hate speech; never limit speech, but use specific hate speech or cyberbullying to sculpt a very detailed response, or at the least, a positive response. Something similar to TrollBusters could be used to counter any type of cyberbullying attack. If more clicks turned into advertising dollars for positive responses, as a balance to the description Lewinsky gives of the mechanism behind the monetization of humiliation and shame, we could possibly see a “cultural revolution” and return to our “long held value of compassion and empathy.” There is always the hope.