In 2015, an American dentist and recreational big-game hunter received a flood of negative messages and online reviews after killing Cecil the lion.

Online shaming is a form of Internet vigilantism in which targets are publicly humiliated using technology like social and new media. Proponents of shaming see it as a form of online participation that allows hacktivists and cyber-dissidents to right injustices. Critics see it as a tool that encourages online mobs to destroy the reputation and careers of people or organizations who made perceived slights.

Online shaming frequently involves the publication of private information on the Internet (called doxing), which can frequently lead to hate messages and death threats being used to intimidate that person. The ethics of public humiliation has been a source of debate over privacy and ethics.


  • 1 Public shaming
  • 2 Types
    • 2.1 Doxing
    • 2.2 Revenge porn
    • 2.3 Negative reviews
    • 2.4 Government shaming
  • 3 Notable examples
    • 3.1 Ashley Madison data breach
    • 3.2 Political
      • 3.2.1 Justine Sacco incident
      • 3.2.2 Adria Richards incident
      • 3.2.3 Australian racist bus passengers incident
      • 3.2.4 Conduct on public transportation
      • 3.2.5 Hypatia transracialism controversy
    • 3.3 Animal abuse
      • 3.3.1 YouTube cat abuse incident
      • 3.3.2 The Kitten Killer of Hangzhou
      • 3.3.3 Cat dumped in wheelie bin
      • 3.3.4 Rabbit gate
    • 3.4 General
      • 3.4.1 Goblin Valley rock-toppling incident
      • 3.4.2 China’s Watch Brother Incident
      • 3.4.3 Dog Poop Girl
      • 3.4.4 Evan Guttman and the Stolen Sidekick
      • 3.4.5 Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory
      • 3.4.6 Zhang Ya and Sichuan earthquake
      • 3.4.7 Stephen Fowler and Wife Swap
      • 3.4.8 Cyclist abuser incident
      • 3.4.9 Vigilante group targets mother
      • 3.4.10 Cooks Source incident
      • 3.4.11 Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein
      • 3.4.12 Senior solicitor, Alexander Carter-Silk and junior barrister, Charlotte Proudman
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links

Public shaming[edit]

Jon Ronson has compared modern online shaming to medieval pillories.

The social networking tools of the Internet have been used as a tool to easily and widely publicize instances of perceived anti-social behavior.

David Furlow, chairman of the Media, Privacy and Defamation Committee of the American Bar Association, has identified the potential privacy concerns raised by websites facilitating the distribution of information that is not part of the public record (documents filed with a government agency), and has said that such websites “just [give] a forum to people whose statements may not reflect truth.”[1]

After some controversial incidents of public shaming, the popular link-sharing and discussion website Reddit introduced a strict rule against the publication of non-public personally-identifying information via the site (colloquially known on Reddit and elsewhere as “doxing”[clarification needed]). Those who break the rule are subject to a site-wide ban, and their posts and even entire communities may be removed for breaking the rule.

In 2015, online shaming was the subject of the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.[2] Ronson documented how people had become agoraphobic due to humiliation online for misinterpreted jokes, and says people should think twice before gleefully condemning someone for doing almost nothing wrong.[2]



Main articles: Doxing and cyber-stalking

Doxing involves researching and broadcasting personally identifiable information about an individual, often with the intention of harming that person.[3][4][5][6] This can often lead to extortion, coercion, harassment and other forms of abuse. On February 1, 2017, Reddit, a social news website, has banned two alt-right communities, r/altright and r/alternativeright for doxing and violating Reddit community guidelines.[7][8][9]

Revenge porn[edit]

Nonconsensual pornography is a form of sexually explicit recording publicized on the Internet in order to humiliate a person, frequently distributed by computer hackers or ex-partners (called revenge porn). Images and video of sexual acts are often combined with doxing of a person’s private details, such as their home addresses and workplaces.[10][11] Victims’ lives can be ruined as a result, the victims exposed to cyber-stalking and physical attack as well as facing difficulties in their workplace should their images become known as a result of routine checks by employers. Some have lost their jobs, while others have been unable to find work at all.[12]

Negative reviews[edit]

Products frequently attract negative reviews on Goodreads,[13] Amazon and other online commerce websites.

In many cases, users of Yelp write reviews in order to lash out at corporate interests or businesses they dislike.[14] During the Chick-fil-A same-sex marriage controversy, activists encouraged a consumer boycott of Chick-fil-A and left negative reviews of the site’s locations on restaurant rating websites after the founder declared that corporate profits would be donated to political causes opposing same-sex marriage in the United States. In 2015 an Indiana pizzeria was swarmed with negative Yelp reviews after the owner said it wouldn’t cater gay weddings.[15][16][17][18][19][20] Similar reactions have frequently followed bakers refusing to make cakes for gay weddings.[21][22] After Cecil the lion was shot by an American recreational big-game hunter, his business was flooded with negative reviews.[23]

Government shaming[edit]

Various governments have used “name and shame” policies to punish tax evasion,[24][25][26] environmental violations[27] and minor crimes like littering.[28]

Notable examples[edit]

Ashley Madison data breach[edit]

Main article: Ashley Madison data breach

Public humiliation of Ashley Madison users has been argued to be a form of “flogging in the virtual town square”.[29]

In July 2015, a group hacked the user data of Ashley Madison, a commercial dating website marketed as helping people have extramarital affairs. In August 2015, over 30 million user account details, including names and email addresses were released publicly.

A variety of security researchers and Internet privacy activists debated the ethics of the release.[2][30][31][32][33]

Clinical psychologists argued that dealing with an affair in a particularly public way increases the hurt for spouses and children.[34] Carolyn Gregoire argued “[s]ocial media has created an aggressive culture of public shaming in which individuals take it upon themselves to inflict psychological damage” and more often than not, “the punishment goes beyond the scope of the crime.”[34] Charles J. Orlando, who had joined the site to conduct research concerning women who cheat, said he felt users of the site were anxious the release of sexually explicit messages would humiliate their spouses and children.[29] He wrote it is alarming “the mob that is the Internet is more than willing to serve as judge, jury, and executioner” and members of the site “don’t deserve a flogging in the virtual town square with millions of onlookers.”[29]


Justine Sacco incident[edit]

In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a woman with 170 Twitter followers, tweeted acerbic jokes during a plane trip from New York to Cape Town, such as “Weird German dude get some deodorant”[2] and, in Heathrow; “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!” Sacco, a South African herself,[35] intended the tweet to mock American ignorance of South Africa, and in a later interview expressed that her intention was to “mimic—and mock what an actual racist, ignorant person would say.”[36][37] Sacco slept during her 11-hour plane trip, and woke up to find out that she had lost her job and was the number one Twitter topic worldwide, with celebrities and new media bloggers all over the globe denouncing her and encouraging all their followers to do the same. Sacco’s employer, New York internet firm IAC, declared that she had lost her job as Director of Corporate Communications.[36] People began tweeting “Has Justine landed yet?”, expressing schadenfreude at the loss of her career.[36][37] Sam Biddle, the Gawker Media blogger who promoted the #HasJustineLandedYet hashtag, later apologised for his role, admitting that he did so for Internet traffic to his blog,[35] and noting that “it’s easy and thrilling to hate a stranger online.”[38][39]

According to Ronson, the public does not understand that a vigilante campaign of public shaming, undertaken with the ostensible intention of defending the underdog, may create a mob mentality capable of destroying the lives and careers of the public figures singled out for shaming.[2] Ronson argued that in the early days of Twitter, people used the platform to share intimate details of their lives, and not as a vehicle of shaming. Brooke Gladstone argued that the Sacco affair may deter people from expressing themselves online due to a fear of being misinterpreted.[2] Kelly McBride argues that journalists play a key role in expanding the shame and humiliation of targets of the campaigns by relaying claims to a larger audience, while justifying their actions as simply documenting an event in an impartial manner.[35] She writes: “Because of the mob mentality that accompanies public shaming events, often there is very little information about the target, sometimes only a single tweet. Yet there is a presumption of guilt and swift move toward justice, with no process for ascertaining facts.” McBride further notes “If newspapers ran front-page photos of adulterers in the Middle East being stripped naked and whipped in order to further their shame, we would criticize them as part of a backward system of justice.” Ben Adler compared the Sacco incident to a number of Twitter hoaxes, and argued that the media needs to be more careful to fact-check articles and evaluate context.[40]

Adria Richards incident[edit]

In March 2013, at a PyCon technology conference, a female participant named Adria Richards took offense at a private discussion between two male attendees seated nearby using the words “dongle” and “forking” in reference to the male presenter, which she perceived as a sexual joke. Richards photographed the attendees with their faces visible, then published the photograph on Twitter including a shaming statement in her tweet. The following day, the employer of one of the photographed individuals, a software developer, terminated his employment because of the joke.[41][42][43][44][45]

In response to Richards’ public shaming of the developers, Internet users who were uninvolved launched a DDoS Attack on her employer, SendGrid, and according to an article by Jon Ronson in The New York Times Magazine “told the employer the attacks would stop if Richards was fired”.[46] SendGrid subsequently terminated her employment later the same day citing Richards’ dividing the very community she was hired to unite, and the male anatomy joke she had posted a few days earlier on the employer website. Following the incident, PyCon updated its attendee rules stating, “Public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community. PyCon does not condone nor participate in such actions out of respect.”[45][46][47]

In a 2014 interview, Richards—still unemployed—speculated whether the developer was responsible for instigating the Internet backlash against her.[41] The developer, who was offered a new job “right away”, said he had not engaged with those who sent him messages of support, and had posted a short statement on Hacker News the same night after he was fired saying in part that Richards had “every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position”.[41][42]

Australian racist bus passengers incident[edit]

In November 2012, an Australian man filmed several passengers on a Melbourne bus verbally abusing and threatening a woman who had begun singing a song in French. A video alerting viewers of their racist and sexist comments was uploaded to YouTube[48] and quickly attracted national[49][50] and international media attention.[51] The two male perpetrators who were most prominent in the video were later jailed, with Magistrate Jennifer Goldsbrough describing their threats as “offensive to the entire population”.[52][53][54]

Conduct on public transportation[edit]

A woman taking up empty seats on the London Underground

Starting as a turn of phrase by feminists on Tumblr, manspreading is a critique of men who take up more than one seat with their legs widely spread.[55] In New York, actor Tom Hanks was photographed on the subway, taking up two seats, and then criticized for it. He responded on a talk show, “Hey Internet, you idiot! The train was half empty! It was scattered—there was plenty of room!”[56] The controversy surrounding manspreading have been described by libertarian feminist Cathy Young as “pseudo feminism—preoccupied with male misbehavior, no matter how trivial”.[57] The practice of posting pictures of manspreading taken on subways, buses, and other modes of transportation online has been described as a form of public shaming.[58] The criticism and campaigns against manspreading have been counter-criticized for not addressing similar behavior by women, such as taking up adjacent seats with bags, or “she-bagging”. Twitter campaigns with the hashtag #manspreading have also been accompanied by hashtags like #she-bagging.[59]

Hypatia transracialism controversy[edit]
Main article: Hypatia transracialism controversy

The feminist philosophy journal Hypatia became involved in a dispute in April 2017 that led to the online shaming of one of their authors.[60] The journal published an article by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy, comparing the situation of Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman, to that of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as black. The article was criticized on Facebook and Twitter as a source of “epistemic violence”, and the author became the subject of personal attacks.[61]

Academics associated with Hypatia joined in the criticism.[62] A member of the journal’s editorial board, Alexis Shotwell, became the point of contact for an open letter demanding that the article be retracted, and the journal’s board of associate editors issued an apology, ostensibly on behalf of the journal, saying the article should never have been published.[61] The editor-in-chief, Sally Scholz, later stood by the author, saying that the associate editors had acted independently.[63] Rogers Brubaker described the episode in the New York Times as an example of “internet shaming”.[60] Jesse Singal of New York magazine referred to it as a “massive internet witch-hunt”,[61] while Glenn Greenwald called it a “hideous smear campaign”.[64]

Animal abuse[edit]

YouTube cat abuse incident[edit]

In February 2009, an incident occurred involving the posting on YouTube of a video clip in which a domestic cat, named Dusty, was beaten and tortured by a 14-year-old[65] boy calling himself “Timmy”.[66] After about 30,000 viewings, this clip and the account were removed by YouTube as a violation of their terms of service.[65] Members of the 4chan imageboard investigated the incident, and by extrapolating from the poster’s YouTube user name and the background in the video, they identified the abuser.[67] As a result of these complaints, the Comanche County Sheriff’s Department investigated the incident,[68] and two suspects were arrested.[69] Dusty survived the abuse, and was placed in the care of a local veterinarian.[70] Both the assailant and the cameraman were charged with animal cruelty; as both were juveniles, possible punishments included “psychological counseling, court monitoring until they turn 18, community service to provide restitution for treatment of animals, and/or placement in court custody.”[71]

The Kitten Killer of Hangzhou[edit]

In 2006, Wang-Jue (simplified Chinese: 王珏; traditional Chinese: 王玨; pinyin: Wáng-Jué), a Chinese nurse appearing in an Internet crush video stomping a helpless kitten with her stilettos, gave herself up to authorities after bloggers and some print media started a campaign to trace back the recording. In the beginning, she was labeled as the kitten killer of Hangzhou, because it was believed she was from there; but some internauts recognized an island in northern Heilongjiang province. Upon discovery of her identity, Wang Jue received death threats from many angry animal lovers.

Wang posted an apology on the Luobei city government official website. She said she was recently divorced and did not know what to do with her life. The cameraman, a provincial TV employee, and she lost their jobs when internauts discovered their identities.[72][73]

Cat dumped in wheelie bin[edit]

In August 2010, a passer-by in Coventry, England, later identified as Mary Bale by 4chan’s members,[74] was caught on a private security camera stroking a cat, named Lola, then looking around and dumping her in a wheelie bin, where she was found by her owners 15 hours later. The owners posted the video on the Internet in a bid to identify the woman, who was later interviewed by the RSPCA about her conduct. Outrage was sparked among animal lovers, and a Facebook group called “Death to Mary Bale” was created, and later removed. Police said they were speaking to the 45-year-old about her personal safety.[75]

The woman, who at first downplayed her actions (“I thought it would be funny”, “it’s just a cat” and “didn’t see what all the buzz was about”)[76][77] eventually apologised “profusely for the upset and distress”.[78]

Bale was convicted under the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 with causing unnecessary suffering to a cat. An additional charge of failing to provide the cat with a suitable environment was dropped.[79] She was fined £250 and ordered to pay costs, totaling £1,436.04.[80]

Rabbit gate[edit]

In 2010, a case was publicized involving a young female from Sichuan, using the alias Huang siu siu (黄小小), torturing and crushing rabbits. The group that financially sponsor the making of these videos was later revealed to be called “Crushfetish” who pay young girls to crush fish, insects, rabbits and other small animals. The girl was paid 100 yuan for each attempt, and she had been participating since 2007. Police said the group makes videos to sell overseas, and the company has allegedly made 279 animal abuse videos with a subscription fee.[81] Because of the concurrent hosting of the 2010 Asian Games, the animal videos were limited to being hosted online for a few hours a day.[82]


Goblin Valley rock-toppling incident[edit]

In October 2013, a delicately balanced hoodoo in Goblin Valley State Park was intentionally knocked over by Boy Scout leaders who had been camping in the area.[83] David Benjamin Hall captured video and shouted encouragement while Glenn Tuck Taylor toppled the formation.[84] They posted the video to Facebook, whereupon it was viewed by thousands and the two men began receiving death threats.[85] Their claim that the hoodoo appeared unstable, and that they vandalised it out of concern for passersby, was rejected by Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation.[86] Hall and Taylor were charged with third-degree felonies and were expelled from Boy Scouts.[87]

China’s Watch Brother Incident[edit]

On August 26, 2012, Yang Dacai, chief of the Shanxi provincial work safety administration, was caught grinning widely amid the wreckage of a long-distance bus that killed 36 passengers when it collided with a tanker loaded with highly flammable methanol on a Chinese highway in Shanxi Province. Pictures of the accident began to circulate on Sina Weibo, the most popular micro-blogging site in China which led to a meme dubbing him as the “Smiling Brother”. Searches on the human flesh search engine followed leading to pictures surfacing on Weibo, showing Yang wearing luxury watches such as a $10,000 Rolex initiating another meme calling him “Watch Brother”. On September 21, Yang was relieved of his position and accused of serious discipline violations.[88] He was subsequently jailed for 14 years after being found guilty of taking bribes.[89]

Dog Poop Girl[edit]

In 2005 in South Korea, bloggers targeted a woman who refused to clean up when her dog defecated on the floor of a Seoul subway car, labeling her “Dog Poop Girl” (rough translation of Korean: “개똥녀” into English). Another commuter had taken a photograph of the woman and her dog, and posted it on a popular South Korean website.[90] Within days, she had been identified by Internet vigilantes, and much of her personal information was leaked onto the Internet in an attempt to punish her for the offense. The story received mainstream attention when it was widely reported in South Korean media. The public humiliation led the woman to drop out of her university, according to reports.[91]

The reaction by the South Korean public to the incident prompted several newspapers in South Korea to run editorials voicing concern over Internet vigilantism. One paper quoted Daniel Solove as saying that the woman was the victim of a “cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital Scarlet Letters.”[92] Another called it an “Internet witch-hunt,” and went on to say that “the Internet is turning the whole society into a kangaroo court.”[93]

Evan Guttman and the Stolen Sidekick[edit]

Other notable instances also include the case of Evan Guttman and his friend’s stolen Sidekick II smartphone,[94] and the case of Jesse McPherson and his stolen Xbox 360, PowerBook, and TV.[95][96]

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory[edit]

In 2008, a 5-year-old girl asked to use the bathroom at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory at Bella Terra/Huntington Beach, but was disallowed from using it because the Factory’s restrooms were for employees only. The girl’s mother describes the incident this way: “I explained she had diarrhea and couldn’t hold it and told [the store owners] she was about to go on the floor. They refused again and never offered me any alternatives. I begged them to have a heart and that she was 5 but by that time she had lost it all over herself and me.”[97] The story then spread to sites like where contact information for the owner of the store was released in message boards.

Zhang Ya and Sichuan earthquake[edit]

In 2008, a girl called Zhang Ya (simplified Chinese: 张雅; traditional Chinese: 張雅; pinyin: Zhāng Yǎ) from Liaoning province, Northeast China, posted a 4-minute video of herself complaining about the amount of attention the Sichuan earthquake victims were receiving on television.[98] An intense response from Internet vigilantes[99] resulted in the girl’s personal details[100] (even including her blood type) being made available online, as well as dozens of abusive video responses on Chinese websites and blogs.[101] The girl was taken into police custody for three days as protection from vigilante death threats.[102]

Stephen Fowler and Wife Swap[edit]

Stephen Fowler, a British expatriate and venture capitalist businessman, gained notoriety after his performance on ABC’s Wife Swap (originally aired Friday January 30, 2009) when his wife exchanged positions in his family with a woman from Missouri for a two-week period. In response to her rule changes (standard procedure for the second week in the show) he insulted his guest and, in doing so, groups including the lower classes, soldiers, and the overweight. Several websites were made in protest against his behaviour.[103] After the show, and after watching the Wife Swap video, his wife, a professional life coach, reported that she had encouraged him to attend professional behaviour counselling. Businesses with only tangential connection to Fowler publicly disclaimed any association with him due to the negative publicity.[104] He resigned positions on the boards of two environmental charities to avoid attracting negative press.

Cyclist abuser incident[edit]

In 2008, video of Patrick Pogan, a rookie police officer, body-slamming Christopher Long, a cyclist, surfaced on the Internet.[105] The altercation happened when members of Critical Mass conducted a bicycling advocacy event at Times Square.[106] The officer claimed the cyclist had veered into him, and so the biker was charged with assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The charges against the cyclist were later dropped and Pogan was convicted of lying about the confrontation with the cyclist.[107]

Vigilante group targets mother[edit]

In 2009, a Facebook group was started, accusing a single mother for the death of a 13-month-old child in her foster care. It was the mother’s then common-law husband who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and the mother was not formally accused of any wrongdoing. However, the members of the group, such as the boy’s biological mother, accuse her of knowing what was going on and doing nothing to stop it.[108]

Cooks Source incident[edit]
Main article: Cooks Source infringement controversy

The food magazine Cooks Source printed an article by Monica Gaudio without her permission in their October 2010 issue. Learning of the copyright violation, Gaudio emailed Judith Griggs, managing editor of Cooks Source Magazine, requesting that the magazine both apologize and also donate $130 to the Columbia School of Journalism as payment for using her work. Instead she received a very unapologetic letter stating that she (Griggs) herself should be thanked for making the piece better and that Gaudio should be glad that she didn’t give someone else credit for writing the article. During the ensuing public outcry, online vigilantes took it upon themselves to avenge Gaudio. The Cooks Source Facebook page was flooded with thousands of contemptuous comments, forcing the magazine’s staff to create new pages in an attempt to escape the protest and accuse ‘hackers’ of taking control of the original page. The magazine’s website was stripped of all content by the staff and shut down a week later.[109]

Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein[edit]

An elderly bus monitor, Karen Klein, was taunted, picked on, and threatened by four seventh-graders. The act was caught on video and uploaded to the Internet which in turn caused an act of kindness from complete strangers. $703,833 was raised for Klein in donations from concerned strangers who were outraged after viewing a video that captured her torment.[110]

Senior solicitor, Alexander Carter-Silk and junior barrister, Charlotte Proudman[edit]

In 2015 a junior barrister Charlotte Proudman working in the UK tweeted a screenshot of her LinkedIn exchange with Alexander Carter-Silk, a senior City solicitor, rebuking him for complimenting her on her profile photograph. The social media backlash included Proudman finding herself condemned as a “feminazi”.[111]

See also[edit]

  • Internet vigilantism
  • Call-out culture


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  • External links[edit]

    • Hate Crimes in Cyberspace – by Danielle Keats Citron
    • The Outrage Machine: a short documentary by Retro Report that looks at the origin of Internet shaming and what it feels like to be caught up in a case of online shaming gone viral.