Logan Paul, a former YouTube star, is one of the latest casualties of internet rage.

Paul, attempting to push the boundaries of his viral vlog, visited the Aokigahara forest in Japan—a well-known suicide site. He and his team unexpectedly encountered the body of a suicide victim; with the intention of “raising awareness,” they recorded it, filmed their reactions to the discovery, and then uploaded the footage to YouTube.

Retribution was fast and furious. Loyal fans, newcomers, celebrities, and news media alike piled on Paul for his actions, not limiting themselves to condemning the video, but to his worth as a person. Paul apologized multiple times, then finally withdrew from YouTube entirely, saying he was taking time to reflect.

The ritual of public shaming is nothing new. And the desire to conform to norms has a significant role in guiding cohesive societies. But today’s brand of mass humiliation is more public, more widespread, more scarring, and potentially more dangerous. In a review of journalist Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Rita Koganzon examines why the long-established social ritual of punishment-by-shame has become especially problematic.

The method by which we can shame those we deem to have transgressed—online, through Twitter, Facebook, and email—unleashes a new level of hostility, because we don’t have to face the target of our abuse.

Koganzon writes:

The extent to which we are willing to inflict pain on others is tempered by our own shame at being, and being thought, cruel. This means that even when a guest or a colleague makes an off-color remark at a party or at a meeting, few people will respond by gathering everybody to berate the speaker publicly in an Orwellian “Two Minutes Hate” and then throwing him out of the building, which would be roughly the physical equivalent of an Internet pile-on…The only decent way to respond without making oneself more loathsome than the original offender is to take him aside privately and offer a gentle suggestion. Social media diminishes both the discomfort of seeing our victim’s suffering and the shame of being seen making him suffer, both of which require personal proximity to experience.

Additionally, in the past, shaming would presumably have a start and end point. A modern mass shaming, however, is like a permanent stain. Figures like Justine Sacco, Lindsay Stone, and now, Logan Paul, lose their jobs as well as their reputations.

In a regime where both financial and social possibilities hinge on employment, to be rendered not just temporarily unemployed but unemployable is a fate not substantially better than imprisonment. Social media can punish those deemed offensive more severely than any formal sentence for a speech violation ever could in the United States. The best strategy that most reasonably risk-averse people will hit upon to deal with this ominous threat to their livelihoods is to shut up.

It may be what we want in the moment—the satisfaction of having someone who hurt someone else retreat in remorse. But the lasting damaging effects of this, and the fear it spreads, might do more harm than the sense of justice does us good.

In the online world, everyone is a public figure and everyone is a target. As Koganzon says, the conversations that used to be reserved for our friends, family members, and communities are now open for scrutiny, criticism and even persecution of anyone with a wifi connection and a temper. This takes the fear of ostracism outside of the public sphere and places it squarely in our homes. Koganzon writes, “The problem with joining gangs in order not to be defenseless against them is not that it’s a wrong calculation about one’s own safety, but that when everyone is forced into this choice, the neighborhood tends to become unlivable pretty quickly.”

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The New Atlantis, No. 45 (Spring 2015), pp. 118-126
Center for the Study of Technology and Society