Dear Stranger Who Shamed Me On Social Media

Do You Really Believe You Were Helping?

Dear Stranger,

When I received your friend request, I thought that maybe we were acquainted. We had a couple of friends in common and I’m terrible with names. I figured it was best for me to consider you a friend on Facebook rather than cause hurt feelings if I had indeed forgotten the name of a friend.

I don’t know if you made the friend request to facilitate sharing my picture, or if you simply hoped to ensure that I saw what you had to say about me. It was really just happenstance that I saw your post about my husband and me. I mostly only use Facebook to message my kids, but that day there was a local car accident and I checked to see if it had been reported. When I saw your post I quickly realized that you were not a friend at all.

The picture you chose to share so others could identify my husband and me was from our wedding anniversary a couple of years ago. We were on a simple date, enjoying frozen yogourt on a hot summer’s day. It was a happy event, celebrating more than twenty years together. It hurt seeing the picture used to display us as you described the crimes you believed us guilty of. Kind of like the “wall of shame” showing security photos of “fill up and run” self-serve gas bar customers. In medieval times maybe you would have delighted in having us stand in stocks in the town square. Maybe we would have been tarred and feathered. It doubly hurt that I read that post while trying to enjoy Canadian Thanksgiving weekend with my family.

I’m not going into detail about what you said or about “my side of the story”. There isn’t much point because I’m not really planning on showing you this. I’m not linking this article to any of my social media because I don’t want anyone even guessing who this is about. I don’t wish to “call you out”, publicly get revenge, or even “clear my name” in the court of public opinion. It was once the case that speaking publicly of others’ private matters (and especially speaking negatively) was considered gossip. Gossiping was seen as an antisocial habit. At best it was a waste of time and mental energy. At worst it was a vehicle for spreading lies and harming good relations. Somehow when we talk about others’ private matters on social media it’s viewed differently. We are “calling people out”, standing up for what we believe in. By publicly denouncing the actions of those we are against we simultaneously demonstrate the values we believe in. It is seen as a pro-social act, akin to publicly demonstrating for a cause, writing town council, being a spokesperson, or maybe even running for office. Call me old fashioned, but if we focus on singling people out, talking about specific incidents rather than general principles, and complain of others’ wrongdoings rather than suggest a better path — then it’s still gossiping. And I believe social media can really amplify the potential harm of gossip. So I will do what I can to avoid “calling out” any particular person and instead offer my insights on why shaming people over social media is potentially both harmful and counterproductive.

Social media stranger, what I would tell you if I got to meet you in person is this: The message you posted contained some truth (albeit out of context), some misguided guesswork, and some outright false statements. If you had spoken to me about your concerns in person, or sent me a private message, I may have been able to clear some things up. We may have even found that we had some common ground. But that didn’t happen. As a result, my husband and I found ourselves in a situation where we had to prove ourselves innocent to others. There is a reason why our legal system operates on an innocent until guilty premise, along with requiring concrete evidence to back up claims and advocates for both sides of the issue — The system serves to help prevent innocent parties being punished and attention being misdirected. But the court of public opinion doesn’t work this way. We lost a friend due to being misrepresented by your post. He didn’t wish to be associated with us and our social media reputation. I am hurt and disappointed in our once-friend for treating your post as unbiased information and not speaking to us about the matter directly as we would have with him. I am also aware that social media can really amplify a reputation, for good or bad, in a very short period of time. Quite possibly our once-friend saw the power your post had on our reputation and was scared of the same thing happening to him by virtue of association. I felt like I was in the middle of the Orville episode, called “Majority Rule”, where the fate of citizens is determined by “up votes”and “down votes” on social media rather than by societal systems such as our legal system. Not only does the unstructured court of public opinion run the risk of falsely charging people with misdeeds, but it works by weaponizing a very powerful emotion — shame. I think when we are trying to improve our society, it’s safer to appeal to reason and to people’s better instincts than it is to make dramatic emotional appeals — especially those using negative emotions. This helps prevent us from alienating people who would be on board to help with whatever cause we wish to support, while also encouraging thoughtful judgement.

Social media stranger, did you shame me because you felt you were supporting those you believed I wronged. Did you believe yourself a protector of the vulnerable and defenceless? If so, how else are you helping these underdogs in need of your support (whether they be the poor, children, the elderly, animals, the environment, the LGBTQ community, whatever)? Do you take time to educate the public about the needs and challenges of these groups? Do you volunteer your time and money toward helping them? Do you vote for those who support your cause? These types of actions can actually make a difference for those you wish to serve. I fear that many mistake supporting and denouncing people and their associated actions over social media for actually taking action to improve the world.

And lastly, do we really need to spread so much negativity with no mention of anything positive actions we can take? On a personal note, do we need to make people feel embarrassed for others or themselves? Does the world really need more shame, guilt, divisiveness and pain? I don’t see how your post helped anyone or anything you stand for. But it did cause me pain on a holiday meant for sharing feelings of gratitude with family. And as much as I didn’t want it to, it made me trust the world a little less. I am now a little more cautious meeting strangers, a little less likely to assume good intentions. I didn’t wish this for me. I don’t wish it for you.

I’m a business trainer specializing in workplace wellness and environmental sustainability. In my spare time I dabble as a mad scientist and street philosopher.

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