The Not-So-Subtle Art of Public Shaming - Propaganda Week


By Jorri Roberts

Photo courtesy of Irina Slutsky.

Public shaming has become a part of our internet culture, rapidly growing through social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr post by post. We complain about the public etiquette of others; we call people out for prejudices in arguments; we even post pictures of people doing strange or questionable things and laugh at them. Social media, it seems, allows us a public medium in which we can scold, correct, and even ridicule not only other social media users but naive passersby in the outside world as well.

“Public shaming” itself may seem like a relatively new term, but the practice has been going on as long as we’ve had an outlet with which to do it — take, for example, celebrity tabloids, which praise certain stars for having toned and tan beach bodies while trashing other stars who have (gasp!) cellulite and extra lumps. It’s a custom that does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon, especially as long as we have accessible means to it. Enter the internet, the most public of forums, a place where you can say whatever you’d like and have people constantly hear, read, and see it.

Internet users appear to be utilizing the public digital space more and more to express what they think people should and shouldn’t do, sharing the apparently ridiculous things that these targeted people do with other users and seeking agreement or sympathy from them in the process. For example, the New York City-based blog Gothamist has a series titled “Subway Etiquette,” in which users post pictures of people doing what they deem to be unacceptable things on NYC subways as other users comment and typically agree. One of the “classics” of public shaming, People of Walmart, has users submit pictures of people they find at the chain store who are wearing crazy outfits or doing something otherwise preposterous; it is as if the website’s single purpose is to make people laugh at the passersby’s expense.

There is also the Project, a website that uses an algorithm to stream Twitter users’ tweets containing one of four common homophobic remarks in real time. The site does not blur out usernames or edit the tweets, which publicly and unabashedly reveals the culprits.

However, according to creator of the website Dr. Kristopher Wells—who has spoken with BTR twice before—the purpose of the site is not, in fact, to publicly shame people who use the internet to express their questionable practices.

“Our site is not about outing people,” Wells says. “It’s about outing words and the damage that the words have. Our message to people is: think before you speak, and think before you tweet. These words are not benign and not without consequences.”

Although the message behind apparently lies in the constancy of derogatory tweets from real users, Wells maintains that it’s necessary to include these Twitter users’ handles.

“It was important for us to actually show that these were real live people that were tweeting,” he explains. “A lot of people have asked us, ‘Are these real people?’ You can actually go to their twitter profiles. People can go to the site and engage with people if they wish. It wasn’t our intention to shame people for the language that they use—it’s the responsibility of these peoples’ peer networks, friends, and family to inform them.”

Wells has never gotten any negative responses from Twitter users who have been featured on the website, due in part to the astounding speed at which the tweets stream by. Because of the dizzying velocity of tweets, he and his team decided to install a pause button on the site that enables users to presently stop the stream and examine particular tweets. Wells and his associates are also in the process of researching whether all of the featured tweets are derogatory or not, in order to improve the algorithm’s efficiency.

In conclusion, Wells says, “The website’s power is in its simplicity. We don’t interpret the tweets, we don’t pass judgment on the tweets; we allow viewers to make their own decisions.”

Other websites, notably Gawker and various similar multimedia blogging platforms, use public shaming to highlight racism, sexism, and other prejudices prevalent among American youth. Even though their intentions seem good, it’s easy to wonder where moral purposes end and invasion of privacy begins. We can also ask ourselves if it’s an invasion of privacy at all given that these comments are published in an open forum by many who will never even know they’ve been publicly shamed, due to relative anonymity a la People of Walmart or being part of the bigger picture like

Some people do it to prove a larger cultural point. Others do it to teach lessons of social etiquette. Still others do it just for laughs. Whatever the reason, public shaming is prevalent almost everywhere we look, read, and listen nowadays. It’s an integral part of “internet propaganda,” so to speak, but our word of advice is this: shame not lest ye be shamed.

Anyone interested in engaging in Dr. Kristopher Wells’ project of classifying and analyzing derogatory tweets should visit, which uses crowdsourcing techniques to deepen the analysis of data.