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 -- remarks that later reports show were almost certainly a misunderstood self-deprecating joke -- 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 by now, explored in British journalist Jon Ronson's book, "So You've Been Publicly Shamed."
In the past few years, social media shaming has resulted in ruined careers and sometimes even lost lives. Can we do anything to curb it -- and should we?
Of course, public shaming is as old as humanity. Its sting was reduced by the relative anonymity of urban and suburban living that has replaced the tightly knit community of small towns and villages. But the Internet's global village has brought back the community's power to shame and ostracize, now multiplied on a much vaster scale. At least the gossips in a traditional village knew the person they were shaming and were perhaps less likely to blow one act or comment 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 out before a flight to South Africa: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" Sacco meant to ridicule what she saw as the cultural arrogance of white Americans; but some didn't get the joke, and by the time she landed, she was the most hated woman on the Internet. The uproar cost Sacco her job and essentially 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. Chu notes that such bans passed in numerous states from 2003 to 2008, and argues that the tide turned after donors to the Proposition 8 campaign in California were identified online -- exposing them to embarrassment and sometimes career damage.
But that's a dubious argument. The opinion shift in favor of same-sex marriage had been happening for some time. Indeed, many advocates of same-sex marriage were critical of such incidents as the firing of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, who donated to Proposition 8. When a same-sex marriage supporter posted a video of himself berating a polite employee at Chick-fil-A for the company's opposition to same-sex marriage, it only gained the chain more sympathy.
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 -- a charge he disputed -- 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 -- other than to urge people to behave responsibly and verify the information they share. 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 Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.