Saturday, July 06, 2019

Social media shaming and forgiveness: why nobody’s beyond the pale

She was a high-flying international human right’s lawyer who worked with refugees. Then she was found dead on a beach in East Sussex. What happened in-between is a story of crime and punishment, and a question of how justice works in the social media era.
Simone Burns, who is also known as Simone O’Broin, first achieved international infamy in the business class cabin of an Air India 777.
She’d been drinking. Three bottles of wine had hit her like a freight train, and the cabin crew decided to stop serving her, provoking a fiery backlash from the intoxicated lawyer. Burns spat in the face of one attendant. She called the cabin crew “Indian money-grabbing cunts,” and tried to smoke a cigarette in the toilet.
When the plane touched down at Heathrow, police were there to take Burns into custody. She was convicted of being drunk on an aircraft and assault and was sentenced to six months in jail.

In a just world, that’d be where this story ends. Our legal system is imperfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve got. It’s based on well-defined rules of engagement, with punishments meted based on precedent and proportionality. And crucially, it provides an opportunity for penitence, redemption, and ultimately rehabilitation.

But in the 21st century, we’ve got a parallel legal system, where we’re all participants, and we’re all judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t an original thought – it’s explored in detail by Jon Ronson’s excellent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

In the case of Burns, the Internet, outraged by what she’d done, set about dismantling her life.

This isn’t hypothetical, and it’s not up for debate. It happened, the details of which are indelibly etched within the public record. During her case, Judge Nicholas Wood acknowledged that she’d been the target of a vicious campaign of cyber-bullying on social media.

“You are a woman, not just of good character but a positive and impeccable character – a righter of wrongs. What this has done, thanks to social media, [has meant] you have had death threats and been a hermit in your home,” Wood is acknowledged as saying in The Guardian.

In the days following her death, which has not yet been comfirmed by police as a suicide, Burns’ friends spoke to the Telegraph, saying that she was unable to come to terms with her infamy. Her “world fell apart,” said one friend.

Social media is a dehumanization machine – which is ironic, given that it’s also a great connector. You can ruin someone’s day from across the planet. And you can do it without the guilt or anxiety of a face-to-face confrontation, because social media reduces people to a handle, a profile, or just an opinion.
06/07/19 Matthew Hughes/TNW

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