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Cecil the Lion, Walter Palmer and the Psychology of Online Shaming

4 minute read

Walter Palmer, the U.S. dentist who shot and killed Cecil the lion while on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe is, not surprisingly, facing a barrage of hate, threats and shaming on social media.

Palmer’s River Bluff dental practice in Bloomington, Minnesota has been shut since news of the scandal broke with a throng of protesters campaigning outside. Meanwhile, Internet users have flooded his Yelp page with stinging “reviews” and calls to boycott his practice. He is quickly losing his reputation and his business.

Palmer has maintained that he didn’t know the hunt was illegal, nor that the lion he killed was collared or part of a study. But in the eyes of impassioned online commentators and celebrity tweeters, Palmer is an “instant villain.”

“Something like this, which involves a lion, touches so many nerves.” Glenn Selig, founder and chief strategist at The Publicity Agency, a PR firm that works in crisis management, tells TIME. “This doctor becomes an instant villain: he’s apparently wealthy, and been portrayed as entitled and doing what he wants.”

And as so many before Palmer have found out, it doesn’t take killing an endangered animal to make you public enemy No.1.

In 2012, Lindsey Stone became an online pariah after a photo went viral of her posing and giving the finger next to a sign at the Arlington National Cemetery that read “Silence and Respect.”

Stone told the Guardian that it was a joke between friends to take stupid photographs and she had no idea her Facebook settings were not set to private.

Within 24-hours of the photo going viral, Stone had found herself in the middle of the equivalent to a public lynching. She received thousands of derogatory comments, including death and rape threats and was fired from her job as a care worker.

“Literally overnight, everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey told the Guardian. She became depressed, suffered insomnia and barely left the house for a year.

Justine Sacco shared a similar fate in 2013, when flying from New York to South Africa she tweeted a couple of sarcastic jokes, including one about getting AIDs.

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” the tweet read.

Unbeknown to Sacco, a PR officer in New York, during the 11-hour flight her tweet had been picked up and had gone around the world faster than she had, with thousands of people angrily calling her a racist and reveling in the fact she didn’t even know about the online hate awaiting her. By the time Sacco landed she was the No.1 worldwide trend on Twitter, reports the New York Times. Like Stone, she was also fired and suffered emotional trauma.

“Situations can turn terribly viscous with the truth often becoming the biggest casualty,” says Selig. “There’s so much talk on social media but no one is policing what’s being said. And people believe it regardless of who is speaking.”

The Internet is rife with examples of online shaming, whether it be for being fat, breastfeeding in public, wearing the “wrong” maternity clothes or for a silly tweet or photo. But what is it about the Internet, and in particular social media, that enables ordinary people to turn into crazed lynch mobs so readily?

Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking says venting online is an easy, and anonymous, way to feel good about yourself.

“It’s so easy to be abusive online because it is just a matter of a few clicks on a keyboard and the “enter” key. An individual gets to get the bad feeling off their chest without considering that there is another human being, somewhere, on the other side of that tweet,” he said.

“This also happens on a group level where the shamed person online is made a scapegoat and the braying masses, however ultimately destructive, get to feel good about themselves.”

Jon Ronson, a journalist who has written extensively on online shaming, has interviewed Stone and Sacco at length and is author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, said social media users wield a lot of power.

“There’s a lot of people like Justine Sacco, there’s more everyday,” Ronson said in a recent TEDtalk.

“The great thing about social media was that it gave a voice to voiceless people. But we are now creating a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”

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Write to Helen Regan at helen.regan@timeasia.com