Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shaming the Shamers

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 14, 2015 --  

Internet shaming often doesn't work. Even when it does, it can be dangerous.

When public outrage forced Indiana to amend the state's religious freedom law, it was a prime example of how social media can be used to push social change. Just days after signing the original bill into law, detractors fearing it would allow businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians started a Twitter campaign to boycott Indiana.1 In a major about face, the state legislature and governor hastily added language to clarify that the law could not be used for this purpose.2

Despite this victory, the use of social media to pressure perceived wrongdoers is now facing a backlash. Depending on who you believe, internet shaming is either a case of bullying run amok or a useful tool for pressuring social change. One of the most controversial variants of this practice is known as "fat shaming," which it used to call people out for maintaining an unhealthy body size.

On its surface, such shaming tactics don't sound like such a bad idea. Who wouldn't want politicians to treat groups like gays and lesbians with more tolerance? Who wouldn't want people to be encouraged to maintain a healthier body weight? Such private tactics for seeking social change can be highly preferable to blunt government regulation intended to achieve similar ends. Remember former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's asinine attempt to regulate the size of sodas to keep people from getting fat? Compared to stupid laws like this, fat shaming sounds like a reasonable alternative.

It would be great if shaming could be used to get rid of many of our social ills: Shame businesses to promote corporate responsibility. Shame drunk drivers and men soliciting prostitutes to promote safety and prevent vice. Shame people with racist or homophobic views to promote tolerance. Shame gun owners who put communities at risk. Shame the obese to reduce weight-related diseases and healthcare costs. If shaming works, we could avoid achieve social change without enacting new laws and regulations that might have harmful side effects.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that public shaming of individuals is an effective tool of social control. A recent study found that fat shaming actually led the recipients to actually gain weight.3 The fact that fat shaming doesn't work should hardly be surprising to anybody who lived through high school. If four years of unrelenting in-person peer-pressure can't doesn't make everybody skinny, it's hardly surprising that a Twitter campaign can't achieve better results.

This brings up an important point about the efficacy of shaming. Shaming works best in small communities where people share similar social mores (e.g. high schools and pilgrim villages.) But the internet is hardly a cohesive community. In fact, the internet tends to create a number of distinct communities centered on specific interests and views. Use public shaming to try to get someone to change, and you may do little more than drive them further into a support community that reinforces their desire to stay exactly the way they are.

The recent backlash against fat shaming is a good example of this. Plenty of overweight people, especially women, rally around people with a similar body type. The perception that fat shaming often devolves into bullying (a perception that certainly has merit) has created a community of people who sand by the shamed. Common tools of defense include charges of sexism and intolerance. Marketeers have even gotten in on the action -- "plus size" women's clothing retailer Layne Bryant has started an ad campaign and Twitter hash tag #ImNoAngel to mock thin Victoria's Secret models.

While internet shaming is of limited effectiveness against individuals, the experience in Indiana shows it can be far more effective against politicians. Politicians are much more sensitive to public opinion and mass pressure. Corporations show a similar sensitivity. Studies have shown that companies receiving bad public ratings from consumers typically respond to address them.4 This should be no surprise to anyone who has languished for hours on a customer service line, only to be answered within minutes after tweeting about poor customer service.

The fact that companies and politicians are more succeptible to public shaming than individuals is not surprising. Their success depends on what other people think. Individuals, meanwhile, can hunker down with the like-minded and muddle through.

While shaming politicians and corporations may be effective, it can still be a double edged sword. There is no due process on social media. Who is to say the claims of shamers are accurate? And even if they are is accurate, who is to say that a vocal group is even right about their beliefs?

Just consider the kinds of behaviors that might have earned public shaming in the not so distant past -- interracial relationships, homosexuality, etc. Without a doubt, some of today's widely held social mores will make future generations cringe. Those using social media as a vehicle of shaming would be wise to consider that changing values will ultimately turn some shamers into shamees.


1. International Business times, 'Boycott Indiana' Trends On Twitter; Protesting 'Religious Freedom' Bill Viewed As Anti-LGBT, March 27, 2015

2. Indianapolis Star, Gov. Mike Pence Signs RFRA Fix, April 2, 2015

3. Washington Post, ‘Fat Shaming' Doesn't Work, a New Study Says, September 11, 2014

4. Working Capital Review, Can Collective Public Shame Drive Corporate Social Responsibility? April 10, 2015