Public Shaming

Sarah Warren married a man of means by the name of Robert Prince. She and her husband had two sons. Robert died early in the marriage. Sarah subsequently married Alexander Osborne, a hired worker at her estate.

When Robert Prince’s estate was settled, Sarah assumed ownership. That led to a legal challenge because Prince had wanted the sons to own his property when they came of age.

Sarah became a social outcast. An acquaintance fostered a conspiracy against them accusing them of all sorts of misdeeds. The acquaintance believed her poor health was the result of Sarah’s ill wishes towards her. Also, Sarah had not attended church for several years, also a crime to those in Sarah’s circle. The harassment was brutal.

Sarah was arrested for stealing her sons’ property. This was an arrest largely coming at the urging of those who felt that Sarah was an affront to their group. Sarah died in jail.

Most people would agree that Sarah was a victim of social norms. In reading the above narrative, most people would connect Sarah’s case to the evils of social media. Actually, Sarah was one of the women involved in the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th Century, one of the most deplorable episodes in American history.

Are we entering a period of time in our society where the Salem Witch Trials are perpetual? The metrics of social media are based on engagement and time on site. Unfortunately both of the drivers of metrics are encouraged by abusive posts. Social media algorithms are designed to forward to users content that is most likely to provoke moral outrage.

Just imagine how the case of Sarah Osborne would have gone viral in today’s social media environment. Public shaming seems to have become a pastime for many. How must those who design social media platform feel knowing that they have enables such toxic behavior.

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“Social media gave a voice to the voiceless people, so I think it’s a sad irony that a way to survive social media now is to go back to being voiceless.” – Jon Ronson (Author)

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