Cecil the lion, and the pain of online shame

Privacy, News, Rights

There’s nothing quite like a good shaming, it seems.

Recently, the Twitterverse was in full uproar over a man who had been photographed posing giddily next to a dead lion he killed in Zimbabwe. Unhappily for the man, later identified as Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist and father of two, he had killed not just any lion, but Cecil The Lion, an exceedingly popular and famous beast who had long resided in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. The combination of the ghoulish photo and the lion’s fame turned Palmer into an instant villain, and soon his life was upended by internet vigilantes who mercilessly hounded him on Facebook, shared personal contact information of his family members and associates, and forced his business website offline. Even an emotional Jimmy Kimmel laid into him.

A separate, though in some ways similar, online shaming took place earlier this summer, when Rachel Dolezal, an ostensibly African American woman who headed the local chapter of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, found herself at the center of an Internet firestorm after her parents “outed” her as a white person. As evidence backing assertions of her non-African American origins mounted–earlier in her career, she had even filed suit against Howard University for denying her a teaching post because she was white–Dolezal stuck to her guns, continued to defend herself, and the roar of the internet became deafening. Commenters, tweeters and posters questioned her race, her veracity, her integrity, her sanity. Within days, she was forced to step down from her position, despite the NAACP’s public backing of Dolezal’s record as an activist and leader for the organization.

Both these tales of woe arguably stem from questionable decision-making on the part of their protagonists. But Walter Palmer and Rachel Dolezal are examples of ordinary people suddenly thrust into extraordinary situations by the Internet’s constant need for stories, stimulus and, above all, outrage. Subtleties get lost in the noise. Does it matter that Palmer had every reason to believe his lion hunt was perfectly legal, that two Zimbabwean men are the only ones accused of actual legal wrongdoing (though that could change), or that Palmer has a long history of generously donating to the cause of animal conservation? Does it matter that Dolezal, despite her confusing approach to defining race, was widely known for her effective activism and credited with expertly performing her duties while serving as the NAACP’s chapter president?

At the moment, people in Dolezal’s or Palmer’s shoes—and they’re certainly not alone—don’t have much of a choice beyond waiting for the internet’s judgmental eye to focus elsewhere. But should some other recourse exist? Should people shamed on the Internet be granted some form of protection on the basis of defamation or invasion of privacy?

Beware the Streisand effect

In an incident that occurred way back in 2003, entertainer Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress the availability of a photograph of her house in Malibu. Her unsuccessful privacy invasion lawsuit, brought against the photographer and the now-defunct site Pictopia.com, only increased the photo’s notoriety and attracted more unwanted attention, a phenomenon now known as the Streisand effect.

The same principle holds for those shamed on the Internet: if the goal is to get unwanted attention to go away, trying to legally wrangle your way out is likely to have the opposite effect.

There are other obstacles as well. Proving defamation, for instance, is challenging for most anyone, much less someone dealing with collective shaming on social media.

“Contrary to popular belief, defamation isn’t ‘something someone wrote about me that I don’t like,’” says Josh King, Avvo’s general counsel. “Rather, defamation is a materially false statement of fact that damages one’s reputation. For that reason, statements of opinion – no matter how nasty – can almost never form the basis for a defamation claim.”

What’s more, Dolezal and Palmer, though not famous beforehand, would likely be viewed as “limited purpose” public figures – and thus would be subject to a higher standard. “Like politicians and celebrities, limited purpose public figures have a higher burden for proving defamation,” says King. “They’ve got to show that the false statement was published maliciously, not just out of carelessness.”

And so, the best course of action should you become the subject of a shaming campaign is almost certainly to be patient, ride it out, and let the Internet move on to its next victim. Meanwhile, while you wait for that happy day (happy for you, that is), do your best to get in front of it. “The best option—far and away—is to completely own it,” says King. “If you’re being shamed because you screwed up, apologize. And if you’re being shamed because someone has thin skin and doesn’t like what you’re saying, push back. But suing over it is almost always a mistake.”

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