Skip to content

Crowdsourcing Justice: Effective or Just Cathartic?

Karey Thomson (2L)


You may recall the commotion last month when James Damore was fired from Google for circulating a ten page anti-diversity memo to all of his coworkers. The memo took aim at Google’s diversity initiatives and argued that biology — not sexism — is to blame for fewer women than men entering programming and STEM fields. Unsurprisingly, his message upset many of his coworkers and the document made its way onto the internet and into the public eye. Google’s response was quick, but the debate over whether he deserved to be sacked continued for weeks. Perhaps ironically, one of Damore’s main points was that the corporate culture of Google has become an “ideological echo chamber” in which any dissenting opinions are silenced. The memo called for “psychological safety” for people like himself who are afraid to express their outdated opinions because they don’t want to lose their jobs or become the target of online outrage. Being fired for sending out that memo probably felt like being proven right, and while from Google’s perspective as an employer and a business it made sense to fire him, it probably didn’t do anything to change his mind or make him open to new perspectives.

When Damore says that his ideas are unacceptable to say out loud, he’s describing what sociologists might call the limits of the Overton Window, a concept used to describe the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable to say in society. For example, you might hear the word gay used as an insult in some movies from the late nineties, but such a thing would be outside the limits of acceptable speech now (and for good reason). In recent years, the consequences for transgressing those borders have been amplified with the advent of 21st century “shame culture.” The modern response to bigotry has become to post evidence of their transgression online and hope it goes viral. If it does, potentially millions of people will pile on and an effort might be made to “dox” the person (publish their personal information publicly) so that shamers can contact the target’s boss, friends, and family. Sometimes, the people caught in this net are guilty of truly racist or sexist behaviour, but sometimes the transgression is merely a thoughtless joke, and usually, one or two completely innocent people will be misidentified and targeted along the way.

Jon Ronson explored what happens to the targets of these attacks in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). Ronson discovered that the people piling on the abuse may feel that they are “doing something good,” but when an individual is called out online for something they said or did, it destroys their whole life. These people are hit with a deluge of tweets, messages and phone calls telling them (and their boss, and their families) over and over again what a disgrace they are. When Ronson interviewed people who had been shamed, he found that most were living with the financial and psychological consequences of the shaming long after Twitter forgot who they were. Most of the people Ronson interviewed had been shamed for relatively minor things such as an insensitive joke that wasn’t meant to go beyond their few followers. They were the most remorseful for their actions and seemed to be the ones who suffered the most. Those who refused to be ashamed of their actions, Ronson found, suffered the least. In the case of James Damore, rather than being cowed, the former Google employee doubled-down on his beliefs and took his arguments online, gaining 10,000 followers on his Twitter account and even posing for photographer David Duke (the “Annie Leibovitz of the alt-right” according to the New York Times). Ronson questioned whether or not public shaming was too cruel, but these days one may question whether or not public shaming is even an effective method of social activism.

With the recent rash of white nationalist rallies across North America, there has been even more mainstream attention focused on the practice of naming and shaming, with activists like Shaun King and celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence encouraging their followers to identify and call out the people in the photographs. In some cases the crowdsourced information helped police arrest men guilty of violent assaults and in others it led to people being fired from their jobs or publicly disowned by their families. Those who support the practice argue that society itself needs to be unequivocal in its rejection of white nationalism, and Ronson himself has stated that there is a huge difference between sending a stupid tweet to 100 people and openly carrying a Nazi banner at a nationalist rally. Others, such as Utah State University professor of ethics and technology Jared Colton, in a recent article for Wired, point out that the practice of shaming is a “sloppy form of justice” which opens a door for harassment, stalking, and violent threats which target not only the person doxed but also their families or anyone with a similar appearance or name. Twitter accounts like @YesYoureRacist seem like they’re doing a good thing, but people don’t cease to exist after they are outed for attending these rallies—they have to find a way to survive with a toxic identity. Colton warns that “until we can show evidence that the people being doxed will actually change their lives for the better, we may be only fanning the flames. It might work on those who have just joined the group, but those heavily indoctrinated will only dig deeper.”

While the threat of being the target of public outrage may push certain ideas outside the Overton Window, forcing ideas underground doesn’t make them go away, just as people don’t just go away once they are forgotten about by the mob. Momentarily setting aside the problematic nature of shame culture’s ability to jeopardize personal and economic well-being (whether the person deserves it or not), it is ultimately reactionary and is not a long term solution for bigotry–and may even increase the prejudices of the people it targets. Crowdsourcing justice through online shaming may make people feel like they’re taking a strong stand against bigotry, but it lacks the restorative element of a real justice system. There are currently tattoo parlours which offer free cover-ups for removal of racist or gang related tattoos, but more should be done to create and fund programs that help people escape from right wing extremist groups. If a collective effort is being made to tear the world down around someone’s ears, should there not also be a collective effort to help them build themselves back up and into a better way of life? As Canada braces itself for its own fight against homegrown white nationalism in the wake of the conflicts to the south, these are questions we should be thinking about.

(Colton’s remarks and the article “Doxing Is a Perilous Form of Justice” can be found here: