An image of an internet user recoiling in horror from comments on a YouTube video.

The most hated people on the internet: When shaming goes viral

We’re often told that the internet isn’t written in pencil: it’s written in ink; an indelible ink that can come to stain our lives forever. The freedom and power that social media affords us is also its greatest curse: something that can ruin lives and bully people, pushing them into a suicidal state. Contrary to what you might believe, the internet isn’t the ultimate democracy: it’s an angry mob, a mass of potential millions who punish perceived social and ethical infractions mercilessly.

Whenever a celebrity makes an ill-informed comment, or someone posts something outrageous online, anyone has the power to instantly retaliate from the comfort of their armchair. And if you’re on the receiving end? It may be easy to shrug off a comment like “u suc - kill urself” as idiotic spite. But imagine getting a hundred such messages. When you’re public enemy number one in cyberspace, the retribution is always disproportionate. As the writer and journalist Jon Ronson wrote in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, “when shaming is delivered, like remotely administered drone strikes, nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.” If you want proof of just how hateful the outrage machine can be, then look no further than the following examples.

1. Justine Sacco

Justine Stucco is a prime example of how bad taste can destroy your life. The former PR director of IAC was travelling from LAX to South Africa to visit family back in 2013 when she tweeted a joke saying: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Stucco had intended that her ribald comment (which was only meant to be seen by her 150 odd followers) to be interpreted ironically; satirising the often ignorant attitude Westerners have to the AIDS virus. Instead, Gawker journalist Sam Biddle retweeted her comment without context, and soon thousands of people were accusing Sacco as being an unapologetic racist. By the time her flight touched down in South Africa, Sacco had been fired, and was critically denounced by her employers. Sacco has since struggled to find employment and has been inundated by death threats.

Justine Sacco's infamous tweet. Credit: Twitter/Justine Sacco

2. Adria Richards

This is one example where public shaming backfired. Adria Richards was at a tech conference back in 2013, when she uploaded a picture of two software developers who had made an offensive remark. Richards captioned the image “Not cool. Jokes about forking repos in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me.” As a result of the negative publicity generated by Richards’ tweet, the two men were fired. However, a number of internet users then launched a crusade against Richards; stating that they found it reprehensible that two men had been fired over a lewd comment Richards had been eavesdropping on. Trolls sent threatening messages, launched a DDos attack against her employer, and demanded that Richards be fired. SendGrid later acquiesced, and Richards’ employment was terminated.

 

3. Mary Bale

It’s difficult to forget Mary Bale, the woman who became one of the world’s first viral hate figures. But then, animal cruelty never goes down well on the internet. Bale famously caught our attention back in 2010, when CCTV footage from Coventry, England, captured her walking down the street, stopping to stroke a small cat that had been sitting on a brick wall, then promptly picking it up and dropping it into a wheelie bin. The cat survived being dumped in the refuse, and was found by its family more than 15 hours later. 4chan users later identified the women in the video as Mary Bale and she was quickly torn apart online. A Facebook group called "Death to Mary Bale" was created, and the police were brought in to protect Bale from violent repercussions. She was later charged with causing unnecessary suffering to a pet, and fined £250.

4. Yang Dacai

Yang Dacai, China’s so-called "Smiling-Minister", quickly became the most hated man on Asian social media, particularly on the social network Weibo, after an image emerged of him grinning widely at the scene of a bus collision which left 36 people dead in August 2012. Outraged that someone could look so happy at the site of a horrific disaster, Chinese social media users analysed the image in great detail, as well as other images of Dacai, and quickly determined that he was wearing outfits and watches that he was simply unable to afford on a civil servant’s pay. Suspicious, the internet vigilantes took their findings to the police, who later found Dacai guilty of corruption.

Yang Dacai detained by police in a courtroom. Credit: Getty

5. Brianna Wu

Brianna Wu found herself at the nexus of the GamerGate controversy back in 2014. GamerGate was a divisive debate in the video gaming community about the perceived sexism and misogyny in the industry, sparked by revelations that indie game developer Zoë Quinn had possibly solicited sex for favourable reviews of her game Depression Quest. The debate spiraled into a battleground between the alt-right and social justice warriors, and after Wu posted a number of tweets about GamerGate advocates, 4chan users posted her private information online, and Wu was sent a number of rape and assassination threats. GamerGate supporters even sent images of dead dogs, since Wu’s own pet had died just before. The FBI later investigated the threats made against Wu, and apprehended four men responsible.

Game developer Brianna Wu, at at her computer. Credit: Getty

6. Christopher Hermelin

Christopher Hermelin was a young writer who wanted to challenge his talents. He wanted to see if he could improvise writing and stick to a very tight deadline. To that end the would-be author took to the streets of New York bearing an old-fashioned portable typewriter, soliciting requests from strangers at a local park to write stories for them. What was meant to be an exercise in creativity became a living nightmare for Hermelin, after the image below was posted on Tumblr, without context. Social media users ridiculed Hermelin for the use of his typewriter, which he had only used in the hope of attracting attention from passersby. Overnight, the writer became the internet’s punching bag, and the "Hipster Typist" meme was created to mock him. A year after his abuse spiralled out of control, Hermelin clarified the context of the picture in an open essay, and has since returned to writing and social media. In an interview with the SyFy channel, he stated: "Organisations and couples hire me to type stories at events and weddings. I get invited to talk about creativity and the Internet at wonderful, exciting places. It's almost all positive."

One of the 'Hipster Typist' memes that emerged online. Credit: QuickMeme

7. Walter Palmer

The killing of Cecil the lion seemed to ignite the Western world. For a few weeks in the summer of 2015, everyone had an opinion regarding the fate of this big cat; and it felt like thousands of people wanted to lynch Walter Palmer, the dentist and big game hunter who shot Cecil with a bow and arrow. When an image emerged of Palmer kneeling aside Cecil’s body, a vicious debate ensued regarding game hunting. Numerous celebrities condemned Cecil's death, and Palmer received angry hate mail. Animal rights activists posted the dentist's private details on the net, and spray-painted “Lion Killer” on the door of the garage at Palmer's vacation home. Haters also wrote a number of negative reviews of Palmer’s dental practice. Palmer has not been charged with any crime in the United States.

Protestors with aggressive placards outside Walter Palmer's home. Credit: Getty

8. Matt Forney

Matt Forney, a blogger who originally set out to chronicle his travelling experiences, has now managed to cultivate a public image as an outspoken and controversial critic of the body positivity and fat acceptance movements. Two of Forney’s articles, entitled Why Fat Girls Don't Deserve to be Loved and The Case Against Female Self-Esteem provoked shock and disgust from numerous commentators. The articles soon went viral on Tumblr, and garnered nearly 80,000 views in a day. Although Forney continues to receive hate mail and disparaging tweets from critics, he has used the outrage to generate revenue for himself, and has actually made money out of the loathing of others.

alt

It's arguable that some of the people on this list deserved some measure of punishment for their comments or actions; but is it right for us to take justice into our own hands? I would argue not. Of course, people have the right to expression, and critics have their own right to express their outrage. But I believe that no cause or political belief, even laudable ones like feminism and animal rights, can justify themselves through cowardly abuse, cyberbullying, and intimidation. This worrying trend doesn't show any signs of stopping any time, as the backlash against comedian Kathy Griffin proves.