A Pandemic of Shame: Seeking Refuge From Online Anger

“How Much More Grievous are the Consequences of Anger than the Causes of It.”

Sam Bush / 9.28.20

With studies showing a dramatic increase in social-media use during the pandemic, people have taken to the virtual streets, but it’s not exactly what you’d call a block party. Such is the focus of D. T. Max’s recent article in the New Yorker, “The Public-Shaming Pandemic,” about how people who have accidentally spread the coronavirus have had to face “an onslaught of online condemnation.” At the risk of repeating ourselves again and again (and again), the online world has long been suffering a pandemic of judgment. While the Internet may have unleashed a Pandora’s box of shame and blame, the pandemic has ripped the lid clean off. But don’t take my word for it. Take it from D. T. Max:

At a time when ordinary social life has nearly been eliminated, social-media use is soaring, and ordinary acts can be dangerous, almost every day is punctuated with multiple waves of online outrage. People have been shamed for stockpiling toilet paper and paper towels, for going to stores to buy groceries, and for having them delivered. They have been shamed for not wearing a mask, or for wearing medical-grade masks on the street. They have been shamed for paying too much attention to their health, and for not being mindful enough. 

And what merits such online judgments? When everyone gets to draw their own lines of right and wrong, there’s hardly a safe plot of land on which to stand. Max continues:

Digital shaming seems to become particularly virulent when there is no agreement on what constitutes correct behavior. Many covid-19 statutes are vague; the epidemiology behind the disease is in flux. How close is too close for sunbathing beachgoers? Are neck gaiters worthless at containing your droplets, or just as effective as traditional masks? […] The vast court of public opinion is superbly suited to shame morally ambiguous opportunists.

Max acknowledges that the heart and soul of online shaming is nothing new (before the Internet, people were shamed on television; before that, the newspaper; before that, the public square), but he also suggests that our newest mode of judgment is crueler than ever before. A combination of anonymity, a lack of chaperones, and the immediacy of the Internet make online rage that much more raw. Whereas writing things out by hand usually requires enough time for one’s blood pressure to fall, people can now send their inner fury out to the masses in real time while emotions are still high. The heart of the matter, according to Max is a sense of misdirected righteous indignation. “Digital shaming delivers swift and overwhelming retribution, often unfairly,” he writes. “You don’t even have to be in the right to successfully pillory someone: all you need is to feel that you have been wronged.” When Max compares online shaming to Puritanism, one can’t help but think of the #seculosity of the social policing phenomenon:

Online shaming may not be as brutal as the Puritan stocks, but it can be devastating in its scale: a target of ire who is trending on Twitter might receive hundreds of humiliating messages per second. Sometimes digital campaigns go too far even for those who unleash them. 

Throughout the article, Max introduces us to several people who unwittingly contracted COVID-19 and then potentially spread it to others by accident before being diagnosed. There’s Nhung, the twenty-something hotel manager from Hanoi. After testing positive, the Vietnamese government posted photographs of her in her hospital room and shared her information with the press. People then doctored images of her being out in public and accused her of being an intentional super-spreader. Then there’s Lawrence, the fifty-one-year-old lawyer from New Rochelle. When his information leaked shortly after being diagnosed, he, too, became not just a social pariah, but a fugitive.

One particularly tragic figure is Wojciech Rokita, a Polish gynecologist and obstetrician who ran several errands after being tested, only to find out that he had, in fact, tested positive. A Polish tabloid quickly became headquarters for an online mob demanding his life as a punishment for his neglect. He was eventually so overwhelmed with hate comments, messages, and phone calls (some from people he even knew and had previously helped) that Rokita eventually took his own life. After his suicide, his family couldn’t even find a funeral home that would take his body. Even more grievous is the recent discovery that Rokita’s test, the first performed in his area, was possibly defective. Not only is it uncertain whether he had actually spread COVID to anyone, but it’s possible he never even had the disease.

What is most striking about these situations is how normal the people are who the mobs pursue. We’re not talking about celebrities, but gynecologists! The mob doesn’t only come for the generally reckless, but for those whose actions are otherwise tame and “law abiding.” It just goes to show how the angry mobs could come for anyone, anywhere, anytime. For all have sinned and the wages of sin is death, indeed.

For an apt and timely metaphor for how rage spreads across the Internet, look no further than the wildfires of the West Coast. Simply scrolling through a photo gallery of this year’s wildfires is likely to give one a deep sense of grief. In a matter of hours, vast sections of beautiful wilderness, which grew slowly and patiently over time, have been devastated. In a similar way, a heated comment on Twitter can soon grow into a devouring inferno. Lives and families which took decades to build have been destroyed in the blink of an eye. The fury of the Internet may be a virtual wildfire, but the anxieties and victims it creates are very much real, and in that sense, our virtual landscape deserves a similar kind of grief. As Marcus Aurelius once said, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”

Max’s final story is of an India family, the Moncys, who contracted the virus after traveling and then failed to self-quarantine. Their information was leaked after seeking medical attention and an onslaught of hateful comments online, with some calling for public floggings as a fitting punishment for their neglectful behavior. Max notes that when no one came to the family’s defense, the Bible became a comfort. Eventually, they traveled to a medical center that showed them mercy. Rather than being chastised, they were given good care. Rather than being given a scolding, they were given food and cake. A nurse even contracted the virus as a result of caring for them, but responded graciously, saying, “This is our job.”

Should you or I ever encounter an angry mob on our Twitter feeds, let us hope that we too will take refuge in scripture. It is a place where we all — even those who negligently spread the coronavirus — may find sanctuary. There happens to be a passage in the Book of Numbers where God instructed the Israelites to designate six cities of refuge “so that anyone who kills someone inadvertently may flee there” (Num 35:11). In these cities, these people were ordered to be protected by God Himself. The roads leading to these cities were to be well marked, free of obstacles and wider than other roads so that these people could get there quickly. It is a physical reenactment of Isaiah 55:7 which says, “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” And when we likewise need refuge from our shame and guilt, may we arrive safely in God’s hands and be reminded that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

Featured image via Cape and Islands

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


3 responses to “A Pandemic of Shame: Seeking Refuge From Online Anger”

  1. Jane says:

    Wow, Sam, this is so good. Thank you!

  2. Brad J. Gray says:

    Sam, this is a wonderful piece! Thank you writing. I’ve been mulling very similar themes/thoughts when it comes to the weaponization of social media. This was a very helpful article. Thank you!

  3. S says:

    Wow – this is awesome!! I wish I’d read this back in 2020, when social norms were in flux and my biggest fear was doing something that others considered irresponsible or reckless – and being judged and shamed for it. Scripture brought me comfort during this time too. Thank you so much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *