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Our society's disturbing habit: internet shaming

The following piece, written by the editorial editors, reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.

The internet, as most of us know, does not go away when we want it to. It does not go away when we have to summon all of our stockpiled focus for a paper due the next day, it does not go away when we know we have to go to sleep. Worst of all, the internet does not go away when we make a public mistake. In these instances, the internet -- fueled by thousands of firebrand souls -- shines its omniscient light on the mistake until the one at fault has been ridiculed and shamed to oblivion.

This phenomenon, internet shaming, can manifest in small outbursts and die off within a few hours of someone's bad joke. On the other end of the spectrum, surplus examples indicate that it can ruin lives -- and even end them.

Take, for example, Justine Sacco, former senior director of corporate communications at IAC. In 2013, before her flight to South Africa, where she had family, Sacco tweeted out a series of very dry, sarcastic remarks critical of America and the bubble in which we all live. To truly hammer this point home, she tweeted the following, again, trying to prove a point about American naivety and privilege: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

This was a blunder of massive proportion. Sacco had boarded the final flight of her trip soon thereafter, missing entirely the backlash that ensued on Twitter. The internet community saw to it that, when she landed, Justine Sacco be fired from her job, lose trust with her South African family and be further shamed for her disturbing mistake.

Three years later, Sacco has found a new job, though she, like many victims of internet shaming, was rarely considered seriously by her prospective employers on account of the negative image she drags along. Suffice it to say, the monsters of Twitter got what they wanted.

Some aren't as "fortunate" as Sacco. In 2013, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, concerned vigilantes on the popular forum website Reddit attempted to assist police in identifying the attacker(s) while they were still at large. Redditors ended up (falsely) identifying Sunil Tripathi, except Tripathi was recently deceased -- he had committed suicide after suspending his studies at Brown University due to bouts of depression. He was 22 years old. At the time of the bombings, his whereabouts were unknown (his body was later found floating in the Seekonk River) and his family was consquently dragged through exhausting allegations of terrorism.

Tripathi's suicide was not related to internet shaming. But many suicides in America are. A quick Google search of internet shaming cases will not only prove this tenfold, but will likely bring about a guilty feeling, a pang of realization that a good portion of our society feeds into this atrocity.

This internet shaming, the cyber bullying, it's all so hypocritical. It sounds cliche, but we all have our demons, so why feast upon people who stumble just like we do? Why is this disheartening phenomenon so widespread?

First, there's the appeal: it's a game. The premise: to bring about the target's demise as quickly as possible, then move on to the next target. It's shaming as a form of idle entertainment, whereby the rabid attackers follow a script, as a New York Times article on the case of Justine Sacco suggests. It's Schadenfreude taken too far, it's basking in the dismantling of one's life for the sake of feeling good for two seconds.

According to a CNN, there is now such a thing as a reputation manager, whose job it is to clean up Google search results.

But not everyone can afford a reputation manager.

That is to say, the victims of internet shaming are not just well-known celebrities who are ridiculed by n'er do wells. On the contrary, the guilty parties are ordinary web-surfers like you and me who spend time demonizing people like you and me.

For example, most of the people who exacerbated Sacco's case were those that simply favorited, retweeted or commented on different internet platforms, expressing their opinion. Most of the people who blamed Tripathi and his family for the bombings relied heavily on Reddit threads and stereotypes. They just wanted their voices to be heard. We often do not realize that the person we are condemning is not simply a character on a screen, but a real person with thoughts, emotions and consequences that correspond to what those on the internet say.

These examples are unfortunate, but can be solved if a more empathetic culture begins to surround every interaction that we have online. Something as simple as putting yourself in someone else's shoes can make a difference if done across the board.At a certain point, nothing can be done about internet trolls that feed off of ruining others' lives with a keyboard. But if people can introduce more sound judgment in their internet lives, we can all reduce the effects of internet shaming.

Next time you post an accusatory comment on the internet, visualize that you are saying it out loud to your object's face, because for that person, you are.