On a Delhi-Imphal IndiGo flight last month, Aribam’s instincts were spot on. There was indeed something not right about that a group of five men who boarded in Delhi and were seated in front of her. They ogled at women, took videos of air hostesses and, as if this wasn’t enough, they turned to stare at Aribam and her sister who was nursing her baby.
At 4 feet 11 inches and slender, Aribam, secretary (Assam) of the National Students’ Union of India, can easily pass off as a school girl. “They mocked us, thinking what can this chhoti bachchi do,” she recalls. Not too unpredictably her co-passengers preferred to remain mute spectators. “I felt a little let down by society. We are so used to watching and not getting involved.”
Aribam could not let this pass. Her “blood boiling”, she took the men’s pictures. When the flight stopped over in Guwahati, she sent out four quick tweets narrating her experience along with the men’s pictures. Time: 8.30 am.
Aribam wouldn’t have expected what swiftly unfolded. By the time she landed in Imphal, the tweet had gone viral, the Indi-Go top management had deputed a senior executive to look into the matter, and the local police had arrived at the airport. Time: 10 am.
An analysis by OMLogic, a social media analytics firm, shows how the tweets went viral that day. They got retweeted 1,952 times and favourited 468 times. Both @AngellicAribam and @Indigo6E started trending together that day and were mentioned nearly 699 times. The tweets drew attention from a few influencers like Riteish Deshmukh (current followers 3.6 million) and Tarun Mansukhani (current followers 2.1 lakh) who were quick to retweet. Aribam’s tweets managed to reach 4.75 lakh people, most of them in India but some globally as well. The boors were later detained by the police. Last heard they have been released after a stern warning. From Imphal, Aribam acknowledges “social media is powerful”. But she admits it can also be tricky. Of the 1,000 odd messages she got, there were a few that were abusive, accusing her of being publicity hungry. “Well, you just need to ignore them,” she says. She can afford to do so, as the larger objective had been met: the cads have been truly cut to size.
The 21st Century Makeover
Public shaming, one of the oldest ways to punish society’s transgressors, now has a 21st century makeover. The world wide web is the new global village. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are the new village squares. Smartphone users are the new social community. And hashtag wars, YouTube videos and Facebook likes are the new virtual stones that the world is mastering to pillory and shame people.
According to the January 2015 Digital, Social & Mobile Worldwide report by London-headquartered social media agency We are Social, India today has 242 million active internet users and 118 million active social media accounts. And users spent on an average a little over two and a half hours daily on social media.
The aggrieved amongst this digital-savvy bunch has found a quick-fix approach to seek justice, or to bay for it. With the state slow and inefficient in its response and society largely indifferent in India, public shaming via social media has become an efficient tool to get quick attention and redress complaints. In February, on another IndiGo flight, when a businessman was allegedly harassing a woman, she recorded the video, which was posted on You-Tube, and went viral and shamed the man who allegedly harassed her.
It is not just apparently helpless individuals who are discovering the power of public shaming. Bollywood stars, celebrities, politicians, activists, governments, companies, brands, organisations, and institutions of all kinds are using it in different ways. Just one example: in February, Hyderabad activist Sunitha Krishnan kicked off the #shametherapist campaign, uploading rape videos to help identify rapists and bring them to book.
Meanwhile, consumers are doing their bit to shame brands and companies with a vengeance. Last November, Mumbai resident L Krishnamurthy ordered a Samsung phone on Snapdeal and instead received a Vim Bar, a product of Hindustan UnileverBSE 1.09 % Ltd (HUL). He posted the faux pas on Facebook with HULBSE 1.09 % and Snapdeal getting caught in the crossfire.Snapdeal owned up to its mistake and a week later refunded the money; HUL converted potential shame into momentary fame by sending the consumer the Samsung phone he ordered “to cheer him up” along with a Vim liquid cleaner.
Before the advent of social media, government watchdogs had their own ways of naming and shaming. For instance, the Income-Tax Department has revealed the names of 18 biggest tax defaulters in India on its website. It includes defaulters’ PAN card details and their last known addresses.
Such methods still prevail in the offline world. In Mumbai, to instil road discipline, the traffic police have started to shame offenders by announcing their vehicle registration number in public at busy junctions during the peak hours. So whenever a vehicle is found halting on a pedestrian crossing or parked illegally, the traffic police announces the registration number of the vehicle through megaphones.
Some are using public shaming to show a mirror to the Indian society. BrainJuicer, a market research firm that uses behavioural science to predict human behaviour, is kicking off a social experiment at Lajpat Nagar in south Delhi to see how public shaming can be used to curb littering among Indians. A social experiment video, which went viral with 2.55 million views, tested how Indians respond to people injured in accident. It found 99% of them avoided helping that person, fearing police enquiry and hassles.
Remember, though, that public shaming can be a doubled-edged sword. And with every use, abuse too has grown. Social media conflagrations have cost many apparently innocent people their reputations, jobs and mental peace. This uncontrolled online mob, often hidden behind anonymity, with virtually no code of conduct seeks an adrenaline rush by indulging in slandering sessions. And this technologically enhanced shaming is amplifying an effect that isn’t easy to handle.
Actor Rishi Kapoor is the latest victim, facing what he terms “nonsense” for his comments on the recent beef ban in Maharashtra. He sent out a seemingly harmless tweet asking ‘why do you equate food with religion’ questioning the ban. Reaction? He was mobbed, virtually. “What wrong did I say? People have simply chosen to twist my words. They are abusing me and my family. If our culture forbids beef meat, does the same culture give you the right to abuse me and my family just because I have an opinion that you don’t agree with?” was his reported reaction to the online mobbing.
Public shaming is a growing phenomenon globally. Two recently published books — So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson and Is Shame Necessary? by Jennifer Jacquet — delve deep into the issue, looking at shaming from different standpoints. Whilst Ronson looks at how it could scar people’s lives, Jacquet, a professor at New York University, sees it as a great weapon in the 21st century to force organisations and countries to behave.
Public Shaming, a Flashback
Public shaming has been around for centuries. Historically, offenders were made to display signs announcing their wrongful behaviour. Flogging, branding, use of pillories were all different forms of public shaming. When humans lived in small, close-knit communities where people knew each other, such a public display of punishment for any offender was humiliating. Fear of public exposure and community disapproval made it an effective tool for better future behaviour.
Things began to change by the 20th century as industrialisation and urbanisation made people move from one place to another. Mobility meant communities became more open, fluid and impersonal. The public spectacle of punishment lost some of its punch in a community of strangers. As the colonial era gave way to democracy espousing liberal egalitarian values, punishments became more structured and coded. In a society where liberty was seen as an important human right, prisons or incarceration emerged as a dominant form of punishment. “Instead of people, the state became responsible for exercising punishment,” says Jacquet on a call with ET Magazine.
India’s tryst with public shaming is pretty unique. It has been, and perhaps still is, a country that lives in multiple eras simultaneously. In remote villages, shaming of the medieval variety persists. For example, last year, in eastern Bihar, a 14-year-old Dalit girl had her face blackened and was paraded through her village as a punishment for talking to a boy. And, still in 2014, another woman in a village of Rajasthan, accused of killing her nephew, was paraded naked on a donkey on the orders of none less than the panchayat.
If such primitive ways of shaming continue, perhaps it has also got to do with differences between the East and the West. “Unlike an individualist society like the US, India is far more society and family-driven where public shaming plays an important role in maintaining social order,” says Santosh Desai, managing director, Future Brands.
UK-based Tom Ewing, content director, BrainJuicer Labs, explains that anthropologists see the world as divided into three different cultures: guilt (personal morality/conscience — think the West), shame (judgement of others — think the East) and fear (threat — authoritarian regimes like North Korea). “So public shaming in the internet age is frightening because it takes the tool of a shame culture and is being used in guilt cultures too. And because it puts consequences in the hands of the crowd, you can be shamed even if you don’t feel you’ve done anything wrong,” says Ewing.
On the Razor’s Edge
Ask Vivek Wadhwa, a former technology entrepreneur, who has often spoken on behalf of women in technology. But in early 2015 for arguably a minor oversight — he used the word floozies while talking about tech companies — he faced severe criticism. It soon spread on social media and went out of control. “Initially I wasn’t responding, so it took a life of its own,” he says. As Wadhwa reflects back, he says,”It’s a learning experience for all of us.” His advice: be professional, responsive and do not lose your temper.
For some, the roasting on social media can have a dramatic impact on their lives. In 2012, US-based Lindsey Stone, 32, experienced her silly prank turn into a disaster. She and her friend clicked pictures making fun in front of “silence and respect” sign at a war veteran’s tomb. The picture, uploaded on their Facebook page, went viral inviting public wrath. A campaign “Fire Lindsey Stone” started. It succeeded.
Such mob justice is what is giving many nightmares. Ronson in his book talks about how often there is a total disconnect between the “severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment” meted out to not just powerful individuals and institutions but anyone perceived to have done anything offensive. With his book, Ronson says he wanted to show “people the wreckage, show them the people they destroyed”.
Also, unlike public shaming of the past, 21st century shaming is far more dangerous because it is easier, faster and reaches further. Anybody can join the online mob. And unlike in the past, there is no control, protocol or code of conduct to regulate behaviour. “Indians have a point of view and love to verbalise it,” says Singapore-based Tripti Lochan, CEO-Asia, VML Qais, which is part of the WPP Group.India also has relatively lax libel laws which means people can get away with a lot more here.
“Humans are the meanest race. The term schadenfreude [deriving pleasure in other’s misery] captures it well,” says Partha Sinha, director (South Asia), Publicis. And nobody has put it to better use than companies and brands. “Smelly armpits, darker skin, stunted growth, lackluster hair — brands have constantly used shame to sell their products. Now, at least they don’t have the right to talk about perils of public shaming [when they feel the brunt],” says Sinha.
Maybe there is a learning curve, wonders Desai. With time — like email and mobile phone etiquette in the past — users will evolve a certain code of conduct which will be self-imposed.
Media companies like Facebook and Twitter too are joining forces. Twitter, for example, has been tightening policies to help users deal with issues like safety, harassment, threats and impersonation. Dick Costolo, chief executive, Twitter, on his recent India trip, said: “Twitter has announced changes recently that will make it a lot easier to report abuse and harder to abuse on the platform.” Anonymity fuels abusive behaviour online. Social media companies are working hard to tackle this.
But let’s not forget the other, beneficial, side to shaming. If handled well, public shaming can be a great tool in this 21st century world, insists Jacquet. “You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” In the 21st century, the rise of megacorps and powerful nations has brought in concerns around human rights, environment etc. At a global level, often there are no laws or global courts that can force megacorps or governments to behave themselves. “It is here that the fear of public naming and shaming works beautifully,” says the author. Aribam will agree, and her harassers on the Delhi-Imphal flight would be a suitably chastised lot by now.