When the internet never forgets, is it possible to heal?
“When we find ourselves shaming people in a manner that echoes their transgression, that should set off alarm bells.” — Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Like most bad things in my life, it started with a reply on Twitter.
While I ordered cocktails with my sister’s new boyfriend, exchanging pleasantries during our first meeting, a firestorm about something I’d tweeted earlier that day was developing online. In my physical life, I was having dinner with my siblings, who don’t use Twitter or share themselves online publicly very often, and struggled to understand what was happening. But my online self, an important part of my identity — and as a journalist, my professional career — was suddenly embroiled in scathing criticism and mocking ridicule. I was frozen, stung; the poison pooled and spread into my evening. Physical chills coursed through my body, my appetite disappeared. It was excruciating.
As media scholars like Nathan Jurgenson, editor in chief of Real Life, would argue, that’s because there’s no real separation between those two selves. “People are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant,” Jurgenson wrote as early as 2011, proposing that the two selves work together to create an “augmented reality.” Building off this, many new-media experts assert that the trauma resulting from digitally mediated events is not only comparable to other forms, it is one and the same.
The shame of the moment is what I remember most vividly, along with the panic, shock, and confusion seared into my mind. In my excoriated tweets, I’d compared the rhetoric of a blame-shifting police statement about the fatal shooting of yet another young, unarmed black man to the victim-blaming rhetoric of domestic abusers. I hoped the analogy would help those who empathized with domestic abuse victims see how Black Americans face a similar plight. Instead, the criticism that I was wrongly and selfishly centering a tangential experience, and therefore erasing the pain of Black Americans, escalated quickly.
The critique was spearheaded with fevered aggression by one person — a fellow white woman — but many others joined in with surprising relish. Even if I had royally fucked up, why were these people — many of whom I considered acquaintances, or at least friendly professional contacts — so eager to condemn me? Picking up steam, the critic began a wider, sweeping attack on my entire ethos, moving from the tweets to another piece I’d recently written. In the meantime, no one sought a kinder, alternative reading of my tweets or came to my defense publicly; while tearing me down, they seemed to be enjoying themselves — particularly the instigator. If anyone supported me, they were silent.
Of course, I felt the intentions of my tweets had been grossly misinterpreted and misread. But I also knew that’s always the defense of the publicly criticized; the humiliated one digs a hole deeper by insisting critics simply didn’t understand. I actually thought my analogy held up pretty well, and maybe it would help someone who followed me to see Black Lives Matter in a different light. But I’d seen attacks like this happen enough times to know that responding would only make it worse, give my critics more fodder, and invite more vultures to circle.
Unable to be fully present at dinner, my mind racing, I sat at the table glued to my phone. Part of the suck of this cycle is an obsessive searching for the fallout. In the moment, my reasoning is always that at least if I could see all the attacks, the scope of the damage would be measurable and somehow more bearable. That’s impossible, though; the ripple effect of the internet’s reach is never quite knowable — that’s what makes it all the more agonizing. On Twitter, watching the drama unfold, I said nothing to defend myself. I, too, looked on in silence.
That first night sits in my mind as the initial encounter with what I’ve now spent months and years trying to explain, heal from, and understand. The day after this shaming, I showed the tweets to my editor at the time; she knew my heart, so her reading of the analogy was kind. She also calmly pointed out that the piece in question blatantly disagreed with some writing by my attacker, a correlation that was difficult to ignore, and further, in the midst of critiquing me for centering myself in a tweet, she’d centered her personal issue with me. My editor shrugged off the vitriol, urging me to be above it.
Despite her support, the experience left a deep impression on me, and more than two years later, I still think of it often. I’m calling this incident, and other experiences like it, digital trauma: severe psychological or emotional stress induced via electronic or computer technology. I never saw or physically interacted with the people involved, and yet each encounter still profoundly wounded me. How is that possible? Within the new context of Jurgenson’s proposed augmented reality, the potential for psychological trauma is exponentially increased, online audiences are almost limitless, and the internet never forgets.
Skeptics may argue that the ramifications of digital trauma are trivial or inconsequential compared to corporeal experiences, but a growing body of information about the phenomenon suggests differently. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a brief on what it calls electronic aggression, with an official medical definition: “Any type of harassment or bullying (teasing, telling lies, making fun of someone, making rude or mean comments, spreading rumors, or making threatening or aggressive comments) that occurs through email, a chat room, instant messaging, a website (including blogs), or text messaging.”
The CDC’s decade-old brief is focused on the mental health of teenagers, but at least it offered a more encompassing term than the clunky “cyberbullying.” More recent guidelines, issued in 2016 by the Insurance Information Institute, a resource that seeks to define damages for possible claims, emphasized that internet harassment among adults is rampant, so much so that people are taking out insurance against it. In fact, adults are almost three times more likely to experience electronic aggression than teens.
According to the American Psychological Association, a 2013 study revealed that 14.8 percent of teens experienced electronic aggression, while a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 40 percent of adults have personally experienced online harassment, and a whopping 73 percent have witnessed it happening to someone else. Those numbers only appear to be growing, and the CDC cautions, “As with many types of violence, those who are victims are also at increased risk for being perpetrators.” Like its physical counterpart, electronic aggression breeds more aggression.
If electronic aggression is the weapon, then digital trauma is the wound, but far less has been written about living in the aftermath. Trauma is a slippery, difficult subject to study, because, like electronic aggression, medical research has only begun to scratch its surface as a psychological condition. Harvard Medical professor of psychiatry Judith Herman’s rigorous book on the subject, Trauma and Recovery, uses new studies to prove that trauma is far more common than previously believed. But the real problem with trauma is believing in it at all.
Taken from a late 17th-century Greek word, trauma literally translates to “wound,” and according to our own “woke” Merriam-Webster dictionary, trauma is “an injury to living tissue.” But unlike physical injuries, psychological trauma isn’t always easily identifiable and doesn’t heal on its own. That’s partially because the initial and ultimate response to trauma is usually denial or disbelief. Even victims of trauma have a hard time believing in their own pain or finding a way forward.
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness,” Herman writes, noting the conflict between denying horrible events and proclaiming them aloud creates a powerful dialectic tension. “Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma…to speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims.”
Social media in particular offers witnesses front-row seats and vicarious access to “atrocities” committed, whatever the scale. Though I was loathe to identify as a “victim” of public shaming, I finally came to terms with it in order to explain my continued, chronic distress. Sickened, I realized I’d been traumatized online while my community watched it happen, many offering tacit approval. Then I remembered how many times I’d done the same. After my shamer engaged in another very public attack several weeks later, I blocked her. The line between shaming and bullying is simple — shaming is a one-time thing, bullying is chronic.
W* is a writer who was harassed for weeks after publishing a piece praising a maligned subject. It was several years ago, but I remember watching the ongoing shaming unfold on Twitter and thinking little of it at the time. But when we spoke for this article, he noted the experience had such an impact that he still discusses the ramifications with his therapist, all these years later.
“I basically spent 48 hours refreshing Twitter every three minutes, worried someone new was going to pile on,” W told me. “It was to the point where I didn’t sleep much, and I couldn’t think of anything else. I took a break from Twitter for a couple days, which made me at least able to focus on something else. But I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten over that existential fear — I talked about that with my therapist this year.”
The bullying and shaming he and I experienced aren’t the only forms digital trauma can take, but they’re currently the most easily identifiable; online trauma can be personal, professional, platonic, sexual, romantic, and, particularly in 2017, even political. It can exist at any intersection of those realms and beyond. If digital trauma is the wound inflicted by electronic aggression, public shaming is a specific type of injury.
And although the experience can affect anyone, shaming and bullying disproportionately affect people who’ve previously experienced trauma. “I think if you’re a kid who got singled out for being different and picked on, you assume no one is going to defend you in any space, online included,” W added. “It really feels like you as a person and your intent are ignored, which is the worst feeling for anyone, I think. You feel totally powerless.”
More technically, shaming is an ancient form of punishment. Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor at NYU and one of the foremost scholars on shame, deftly defines shame as “punishment via deprivation of reputation.” Her 2015 book, Is Shame Necessary?, included a digital component, the Map of Human Punishment, which compares shame to other forms of punishment, like deprivation of resources (fines), liberty (prison), bodily safety (corporeal punishment), or life (death penalty).
“I believe the bulk of people’s discomfort with online shaming is due to the fact the punishment is often highly disproportionate to the transgression,” Jacquet told me via email. Particularly in fields like journalism or other creative fields — and especially within small, specific communities and groups — reputation is a key component of continued success. “Shame works in closed, small communities that share similar norms,” wrote Cole Stryker for the Nation in 2013. He calls public humiliation “an organic form of social control,” which Caitlin Dewey echoed in 2015 in her piece for the Washington Post, noting that the practice was documented in societies “going back to the pre-agricultural era.”
But public shaming in 2017 is a totally different beast than it was in 10,000 B.C. “The speed at which information can travel, the frequency of anonymous shaming, the size of the audience it can reach, and the permanence of the information separate digital shaming from shaming of the past,” Jacquet writes. “In this new global panopticon, we must be mindful of shame’s power and its liabilities. Legal scholars who have argued that shaming cannot be effective in highly mobile, anonymous, and urban societies haven’t spent enough time online.”
The ancient public shaming cycle reemerged with the rise of Twitter and various other social media. It’s so rampant that if it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve probably instigated, participated, or watched someone else get shamed. Shaming is usually spearheaded by a single individual or a small handful of instigators who take it upon themselves to initiate correctives or call out offenders. These ringleaders often build up massive followings by going megaviral in their shaming of others, while many bystanders — or, quite literally, followers — are just along for the ride.
“I’d become increasingly aware of cases where people with access to large social media platforms used them to ‘call out’ and publicly vilify individuals who’d done little or nothing wrong,” UK professor Russell Blackford wrote for the Conversation in 2016. “Few onlookers were prepared to support the victims. Instead, many piled on with glee (perhaps to signal their own moral purity; perhaps, in part, for the sheer thrill of the hunt).”
In his bestselling book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson talks with Michael Fertik, a man who works in the newly emerging world of reputation management, to help the super-shamed remake their digital footprint. Fertik tells Ronson of the “chilling behavior” and life modification after intensive shaming and his disgust with others “getting psychosexual pleasure out of their schadenfreude about you.”
“[People] go into therapy,” Fertik said. “They have signs of PTSD.”
The science backs up Fertik’s anecdotal observations — according to Herman’s research, PTSD is the most common reaction to trauma. “It appears that traumatized people cannot ‘tune out’ repetitive stimuli that other people would find merely annoying,” Herman writes. “Rather, they respond to each repetition as though it were a new and dangerous surprise.”
But as Amanda Hess wrote in her seminal piece on the targeted harassment of women online, simply going offline to avoid traumatizing stimuli, or triggers, isn’t really an option. The internet has become a workplace, a town hall, and the center of cultural conversations. As far as I could tell, the only way out of this cycle of trauma was through. At least now I know I wasn’t alone.
*Name changed for privacy