Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see social media crusades against individuals that engage in inappropriate behaviors. For example, in May of 2018, attorney Aaron Schlossberg went viral because he was caught on video shouting and threatening to call US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials on people speaking in Spanish in an eatery (Huddleston, 2018; Shamslan, 2018). The video was posted online and it was shared by tens of thousands of people (Shamslan, 2018). Within the week that the video was posted, Schlossberg was kicked out of his office space, was mocked by fellow lawyers, and the city of New York called for his disbarment (Schamslan, 2018). He was even recorded running away from reporters and the general public on a New York City street (Schamslan, 2018). Schlossberg released an apology a week after the video went viral but the public was not buying it (Huddleston, 2018; Schamslan, 2018). An article published in January of 2019 says that he is now being sued for malpractice for his racist rant, where a client is alleging that they have a damaged reputation because of his behavior (Shamslan, 2019). While I agree that Schlossberg’s behavior was inappropriate, I find myself wondering if his behavior is enough to excuse the behavior of all of the other individuals using social media to annihilate him. To me, it seems that there is a code of ethics for the initial transgressor, but all rules are thrown out the window as people use social media to respond to that person.
When shamers comment on social media, they are doing so in support of social justice (Ronson, 2016). However, the shamers do not have control over many aspects of their comments, including how far or how quickly they will spread. According to the author of So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, people have a desire to act like detectives, searching for the worst information about someone, and this behavior is wrong and damaging (Ronson, 2016). The consequences of a short-lived catharsis can have long-term dire effects on the target (Ronson, 2016). Therefore, our demands for social ostracization, destroyed careers and shaken lives are the responsibility of the shamers; we cannot blame technology.
Ethics are principles that help determine how we should act in various situations (Bonde et al., 2013; Northouse, 2018; PSU, 2019). While it is understood that the transgressor did not behave in an appropriate manner, does that excuse the shamers from responding ethically? According to normative ethics, there is a correct way to behave, based on the behavior that is best for the majority of people (PSU, 2019). Normative ethics has three major branches: teleology/consequentialism, deontology and virtue. Teleology/consequentialism is concerned with the end result of the action and if it creates more good than harm (PSU, 2019). When we publically shame someone online, does the result actually cause more good? On the surface it feels like it is because the person is punished for participating in inappropriate behavior. However, public shaming does not create a positive difference or help with social progress (Christoff, 2014; Stryker, 2013). Instead, we often end up with situations in which the wrong person was targeted (i.e. a person with a similar name received backlash), or the shaming spirals out of control and cannot be reeled in (Stryker, 2013). Most importantly, the end result is a permanently damaged reputation for the targeted because nothing is deleted on the internet, and empathy and forgiveness are hard to find in the world of digital crusades (Capurro, 2017; Huddleston, 2018; Ronson, 2016).
Another way to analyze the behavior of the shamers is from the deontological perspective (PSU, 2019). Deontology ethics is concerned with following the proper rules for behavior (PSU, 2019). The duty deontological theory uses professional codes to justify behavior; however, it has been argued that technology is often used to justify unethical behavior, in an effort to relive individuals of responsibility (Mowshowitz, 2007). In order to have a more ethically sound society, we must hold the person behind the technology accountable for what they have written (Mowshowitz, 2007).
Meanwhile, virtue ethics is concerned with the characteristics of the decision maker. In this theory, it is likely that the shamers can be considered virtuous and altruistic for their efforts for social justice. Conversely, these shamers are only gathering information to slander, degrade and humiliate the target, as was seen with Aaron Schlossberg. These actions do not sound like those of a generous and righteous individual. In fact, the dehumanization of the targets in these situations is known to have significantly negative consequences that do not help with real problem solving (Christoff, 2014).
In order to make the most ethically sound decisions as possible, one should gather all of the relevant information and consider all of the parties involved, in order to formulate an action (Bonde et al., 2013). Individuals should take time to determine if a response is necessary. One should question if their comments are made out of a need to conform, or if they are doing it for righteousness. If the decision is made to respond, one should take their time to respond. This will give the shamers a chance to gather relevant information and it gives the shamed time to apologize or give other relevant information. Further, the digital society should also be willing to forgive. Above all, we must be willing to accept the responsibility and damaging consequences of these modern-day shamings, that are made with a few quick keystrokes as we play out the role of judge and jury online.
Bonde, S., Firenze, P., Green, J., Grinberg, M., Korijin, J., Levoy, E., Naik, A., Ucik, L., & Weisberg, L. (2013, May). A framework for making ethical decisions. Retrieved from http://www.brown.edu/academics/science-and-technology-studies/framework-making-ethical-decisions
Capurro, R. (2017). Digitization as an ethical challenge. AI & SOCIETY, 32(2), 277-283.
Christoff, K. (2014). Dehumanization in organizational settings: some scientific and ethical considerations. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 748.
Huddleston, T., Jr. (2018, May 23). ‘Shark Tank’s’ Kevin O’Leary: Apology by New York lawyer whose racist rant went viral isn’t enough. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/23/new-york-lawyer-whose-racist-rant-went-viral-apologizes.html
Mowshowitz, A. (2008). Technology as excuse for questionable ethics. Ai & Society, 22(3), 271-282.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Ronson, J. (2016). So you’ve been publicly shamed. Riverhead Books (Hardcover).
PSU. (2019). PSY 833: Ethics and Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919
Shamsian, J. (2018, May 18). The angry lawyer who went on a racist rant that went viral got kicked out of his office space – and his week is only getting worse. Retrieved from https://www.thisisinsider.com/aaron-schlossberg-kicked-out-of-law-firm-office-2018-5
Shamsian, J. (2019, January 08). The lawyer who threatened to call ICE on people speaking Spanish is being sued for malpractice for his viral racist rant. Retrieved from https://www.thisisinsider.com/aaron-schlossberg-lawyer-racist-rant-malpractice-lawsuit-2019-1