Opinion
3 min

What social media shamers can learn from CityNews’ Shauna Hunt

Finding the line between public shaming and accountability

When CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt confronted a group of men conspiring to yell “fuck her right in the pussy” into her microphone at a Toronto soccer game May 10, did she publicly shame the men or hold them accountable?

Without hesitation, I’d say she held them accountable, and rightfully so.

But the line between accountability and shaming isn’t always so clear, and it’s increasingly prone to blur.

Take the example of Adria Richards whose story CBC reporter Neil Macdonald shared in a feature entitled “Social Media Shaming” that aired just two days after Hunt’s now-viral interview.

Richards gained notoriety two years ago when she deliberately shamed two men sitting behind her at a tech conference. The men were making sexist jokes. Rather than confronting them directly, Richards snapped their photo, tweeted it and shamed them.

Initially the public seemed to be largely on Richards’ side. The conference organizers warned the men and publicly thanked Richards, perhaps changing future tech conferences for the better. But then one of the men publicly apologized, and announced that he’d been fired as a result of Richards’ tweet. And, as Macdonald puts it, “the mob turned.”

Richards soon lost her own job as her company distanced itself from the mob and, facing a barrage of vicious, even threatening tweets, she went into hiding.

Unlike Hunt, Richards didn’t speak to the men directly — and didn’t give them a chance to respond, let alone apologize. Maybe that’s why the tide turned. Maybe in a world where direct dialogue is increasingly replaced by barbs, judgement and even threats from strangers, there’s little hope of anything but shaming and counter-shaming.

What Hunt did took more courage. It’s one thing to surreptitiously snap a photo and publicly criticize the people in it without ever saying a word to them. It’s an entirely different thing to face your opponents — and ask them what they’re thinking.

Hunt responded with poise and professionalism. She gave the men a chance to explain why they wanted to undermine her work with a sexist, aggressive slur yelled into her microphone. She didn’t agree with their choices; she challenged them and pressed them for answers. But she faced them, and she continued to ask questions and probe their responses.

The most overtly obnoxious of the men — who repeatedly insisted that the planned stunt was “fucking hilarious” and told Hunt she was lucky there was no “fucking vibrator in the air” — was later identified as Shawn Simoes and fired from his job.

Did public shaming cost Simoes his high-paying job at Hydro One? Or was he legitimately held accountable for his own answers, freely given during an interview in which he had multiple chances to reflect and respond?

Actions, choices, even comments have consequences. To me, the difference between public shaming and accountability lies in giving your opponents a real opportunity to respond.

As a journalist, I wholeheartedly live by the rule that everyone named in a story gets a fair chance to share their perspective. That nobody gets accused of wrongdoing without a chance to speak.

That principle seems to be lost in social media and that, I think, is the root of the problem.

That, and the anonymity of many who engage in public shaming. Together these elements undercut the opportunity for genuine discussion — and genuine accountability.

Then there’s the element of self-righteousness — that often looks more like blood sport laced with venomous glee — that seems to fuel so much public shaming.

As one woman, once a shamer then a target, tells Macdonald in his CBC report: “Justice hotly delivered is not justice. I often feel like the culture we’re living in is like when they would throw criminals in the Colosseum and have them fight lions. And I think when it becomes sport, when it becomes entertainment, when you see the person as — destroying them is fun, I think that’s when you get the coarsening of the dialogue that you’re having.”

But if you were to ask some of the people who participate in social shaming, they likely wouldn’t see it that way. Many, like Adria Richards, might see it as raising their voices to hold people accountable, to make the world a better place.

Macdonald notes in an earlier piece that many social media shamers seem to object to objectionable things, like racist or sexist remarks. Though Macdonald is scathing in his description of shamers (comparing them to hyenas licking their chops and lying in wait), I wonder if some “shamers” are genuinely trying to challenge injustice but perhaps lack the opportunity, skills or encouragement to do so directly.

If that’s true, then creating an online culture where accountability is supported but shamers are encouraged to express their objections differently — directly, with a commitment to giving everyone a fair chance to respond — might benefit us all.