Friday 25 May 2018

How the web made stranger shamers of us all

Did you dare eat on a train? Did you fall asleep and drool in a public place? Someone, somewhere has probably filmed you and put it on Facebook.

Michael Buble and wife, actress Luisano Lopilato.
Michael Buble and wife, actress Luisano Lopilato.
The photo Lopilato took of Michael Buble and a stranger in a hotel lobby, which he uploaded to his Instagram page accompanied by #hungryshorts
The couple in the middle of a break up which New Yorker Kelly Keeg live tweeted earlier this year

Gabrielle Monaghan

Imagine, for a minute, that you are a 20-something girl going away on a trip with your boyfriend. As you sit in the seat of a plane waiting for the flight to take off, your boyfriend picks a fight and says he wants to break up. You curl up in your seat and start sobbing.

When you arrive at your destination, you feel a tinge of regret that other passengers might have seen you at your most vulnerable. Once upon a time, that's where your embarrassment would have ended. No longer - you get home and are told that a nearby passenger used her smartphone to photograph you in the heat of a quarrel and to tweet the argument in minute detail to thousands of her Twitter followers.

This is what happened to a couple in America in late August, when New Yorker Kelly Keeg, a fellow passenger, broadcast their row on Twitter and posted images in which the young man and woman would be clearly identifiable to the people who know them.

For the uninitiated, this kind of humiliation is known as "stranger shaming", a relatively new trend of filming or photographing a stranger without their consent and uploading it to a social network or website so internet users can mock or judge them.

It's human nature for people to have a momentary lapse in judgement. For instance, an otherwise well-behaved motorist might lose their temper if their car is clamped. But they could find a bystander has filmed the entire episode and published the footage on Facebook.

Any minor transgression committed in public can be documented on social media these days. Within mere seconds, private citizens can find themselves becoming public figures through no desire of their own. As a result, we are increasingly having to police our own behaviour and appearance in case a stranger disapproves and pillories us for it on Twitter. Dare to fall asleep on a train, drooling with your mouth open, and you could wake up to find another passenger has shared this unflattering image of you with their Facebook friends.

These acts of passive-aggression have been enabled by the surge in the use of social media on smartphones. Indeed, Irish people are among the biggest phone addicts in the world, according to new statistics. The web firm Statcounter found we use our phones to access the internet more than any other country in Europe or in the Americas. With all this technology in our hands, it's no surprise that some of us are tempted to use it for dubious purposes and shame strangers innocently going about their day.

Fergal Crehan, a barrister who specialises in privacy and data protection law and runs The Hit Team, a consultancy that helps the public remove sensitive material about them, began to noticed an increase in the phenomenon of stranger shaming in Ireland around 2013, when images went viral of a clearly intoxicated teenage girl performing a sex act on a gloating man at an Eminem concert at Slane Castle.

Slane Girl, as she was later dubbed, was so distraught afterwards about the photos going viral that she had to be sedated in hospital. Two years later, a search for Slane Girl on Google still brings up 419,000 results.

Footage of another 17-year-old girl, taken in a late-night fast food outlet in Dublin, emerged in 2013. It showed her drunkenly boasting about how her father was a senior executive at KPMG (she, naturally, was called KPMG girl).

Young people have always done foolish things in public, but for the latest generation of teens and 20-somethings, there is always a risk that their mistakes will be exposed by a bystander keen to win kudos on social networking sites.

Crehan, who once saw someone filming a couple having a row on the street, believes smartphone technology has once again turned us into a nation of busy-bodies.

"There is this self-righteousness among people who call out a stranger's bad behaviour on social media," he says. "Of course everyone would behave better if they were under 24-hour public surveillance, just as you would behave better if you lived in North Korea. The old idea of minding your own business is now gone."

British journalist Jon Ronson's latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, focuses on people whose lives have been devastated by the citizen justice meted out them for meagre indiscretions, such as making distasteful jokes on Twitter.

He recently wrote in the New York Times how he began to notice "these shame campaigns multiply to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive."

Take, for example, the derisory comments made under some posts. Last year, the website carried a photo of the back of a young man sitting hunched on a canal bank with a slab of beer cans at his side, supposedly at lunchtime.

More recently, the same website shared two photos someone had taken of a Dublin picnic area littered with an Indian takeaway bag, its empty contents and empty beer cans; a close-up of a nearby receipt from the takeaway purported to display the name of the takeaway customer. The post attracted comments such as "the combination of the Korma and that cheap beer will confine him to the crapper for most of the day. May it flow out of you… like hot lava ya litter lout".

A man with the same name as that on the highlighted receipt responded with the words: "I was absolutely shocked when a friend sent me a link on WhatsApp asking if this was me. I'm no litterbug and I disposed of all my rubbish in a nearby bin, which was quite full. I don't know what happened but it could have been a bird or somebody else but that is not my problem. My problem is now my good name being called into question."

Stranger shaming thoroughly entered public consciousness in the UK last year amid reports that a Facebook group called Women Who Eat on Tubes had been compiling covertly taken photographs of women in the act of eating.

Sophie Wilkinson, a journalist, claimed images of her eating a salad on the Metropolitan Line attracted more than 12,000 abusive comments from online trolls. Wilkinson wrote earlier this summer, in Grazia magazine, that "Eating out of necessity was my 'crime', and people felt welcome to criticise my manners, make sexualised comments about 'gobbling it up' and then called me a 'whining b---h' and a 'c--t' on Twitter after I wrote about my experience."

Then there was trend for recording so-called "manspreading" (a word added in August to in New York. There was a Tumblr account, called Men Taking up Too Much Space on the Train, dedicated entirely to cataloguing photos of men sitting with their legs too wide apart, encroaching on nearby seats.

The act of taking photos of people in public is legal, but, under Irish data protection laws, the images cannot be published without the subject's permission, unless the photos were taken for artistic or journalistic purposes, Crehan says.

Stranger shaming can cause a lot of psychological distress to victims, especially to young people, he says.

"For some people, this could be extremely hurtful," Crehan says. "If someone put up photos of me, I know I would not be able to leave it alone. Teenagers in particular might be much more sensitive about that kind of thing. But, in the end, nobody really deserves it."

Will you be next? Stranger shamers gravitate towards the following  groups:

1 Being overweight

Smartphone-toting busy-bodies like nothing more than taking photos of a fat woman eating in public or a fat man dancing so their Facebook followers can sit in moral judgement.

2 Being an overtly sexual teenage girl

An employee at a Magaluf club filmed a drunk 18-year-old girl trying to win a holiday by performing sex acts on 24 men on a crowded dancefloor. When it was over, the DJ revealed that the "holiday" was the name of a cocktail. None of the men faced backlash but footage of the girl went viral.

3 Being a mother

We all know mothers can never do anything right - that comes with the job description.

Only these days, their parenting style can be captured on camera and dissected by strangers on social media.

In the US, a stranger took a photo of a mother breastfeeding her baby and posted it online with the advice that she "cover up". The mum came across the image after it gained popularity online.

This summer, a Florida mother carried her five-year-old daughter in a sling on her back into a shop because the child was feeling unwell.

The shop manager took a photo and included it in a critical post on Facebook. It was shared hundreds of times.

Irish Independent

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