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The problem with viral shaming during the COVID-19 pandemic

Viral shaming can help spread misinformation and fear during the pandemic


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in news


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Shaming someone means publicly mocking a real or perceived part of their behaviour, personality, or appearance, that you consider to be wrong or not normal. Viral shaming is when this mocking takes place online or on social media, where many people may participate in it. It can be extremely harmful to experience it, and is a form of cyberbullying.

How does viral shaming happen?

Viral shaming can happen in many situations. For example, a person may have behaved in a way that is considered shameful, embarrassing or inappropriate, such as bulk buying toilet paper or not practicing social distancing. A friend or onlooker may have captured pictures or videos of this and uploaded them to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter to shame this person. These images or videos then may become widely shared, often accompanied by cruel and unkind comments that are intended to embarrass or insult the person in the photos or videos. This is viral shaming.

Does this sound familiar? It’s an increasingly common issue, and one that can have pretty devastating consequences. Recently, viral shaming is increasingly used specifically to condemn people "behaving badly" during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

Why is viral shaming an issue?

When we don’t know the person in the photo, sometimes it can be easy to say cruel things about them. Because we have no experience of this person in real life, they may seem less real or human. However, it’s really important to recognise that these are real people, and our actions can have very real impacts on their happiness and safety, even if those actions are simply leaving a comment on Facebook.

Viral shaming can also cause fear and spread misinformation during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. Sharing images of videos of people behaving a certain way, can make the behaviour seem more common than it actually is. It can also cast entire groups of people in a bad light, such as young people. Even if you don’t know the person, viral shaming is a type of online bullying and harassment.

What can I do about viral shaming?

  • Never take pictures or videos of someone doing something “embarrassing” or “shameful” to upload them to the internet without their consent. You may not realise how damaging your actions could be
  • If you see a viral photo or video that is trying to shame someone, avoid sharing it under any circumstances. Don’t even comment on it. If people don’t allow these photos to spread, then they will die out
  • Recognise the impact that our actions online have on others. Just because it’s taking place on a screen doesn’t make it any less hurtful than saying it to the person’s face in real life. Often, people who experience online harassment can feel like there is no escape from being attacked
  • Educate yourself on terms and behaviours that might be hurtful to others, you might not even realise that your behaviour is hurtful and damaging
  • Stick up for your peers, even if you don’t know them. Everyone has a responsibility to make the internet a more safe and welcoming place. Show respect and solidarity for people going through tough times

Feeling overwhelmed or anxious around the current pandemic?

This situation is completely new to everyone involved and it is normal to feel worried or anxious about what is going on. Following the Government’s instructions on how to stay safe and help slow the spread of the virus, can help to make you feel more in control of your current situation.

If you feel overwhelmed by the current situation and need someone to talk to, our anonymous, 24 hour text line is always open. You're worth talking about and we're here to listen and support you.

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Published March 26th2020
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.
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