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Commentary: COVID-19 online shaming and the harm it can cause

Global lockdowns have generated increased friction online, where individuals troll, shame and dox others through social media – how right are we to do this? Sociologist Terence Heng gives his take.

Commentary: COVID-19 online shaming and the harm it can cause

People wear face masks during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Singapore. (Reuters/Edgar Su)

LIVERPOOL: The global lockdown has forced individuals and families to shelter at home, only going out for food, exercise, and to catch others breaking lockdown.

Those who guai-guai (Chinese slang for obediently) stay indoors have developed multiple strategies to fill their time: Baking (if you’re lucky enough to find flour, anywhere in the world), television, computer gaming, dislocating your hip while trying to emulate some Tik-Tok dance, and of course, clearing out cupboards of old stuff.

Social media is awash with individuals posting old photographs and other memorabilia from their past. 

We do so because we probably need to justify to our mom/significant other why we have to keep it for another 20 years and because it reminds us of a simpler, rose-tinted, romanticised time.

For Gen X-ers like me, that was a time before Facebook, Twitter and the internet. A time when making a silly mistake or saying the wrong thing would not be publicised and channeled to everyone and their grandmother. We were idiots, but we could be idiots in relative privacy.

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Not so much anymore: A combination of smartphone cameras, mobile broadband and social media has meant that anyone with these things can become an online vigilante.

See something you don’t like? Photograph and post it, reap the likes, and hope the same thing does not happen to you.


The act of public shaming, defined here as calling out an individual, group or institution for violating a norm or committing some kind of wrong, is nothing new. Individuals do it, groups do it, even the state does it.

In Singapore, the use of Correctional Work Orders for litterers, made to wear high-visibility vests, clean public areas and sometimes photographed by the media, is a highly performative exercise in inculcating and enforcing social norms.

The number of CWOs issued to offenders rose by 30 per cent in 2018. (Photo: National Environment Agency)

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Public shaming is also highly apparent on an everyday basis, whether that is photographing someone not giving up their seat for another on the train, or filming (and posting) poor driving etiquette, the violation (not following society’s “rules”) and the intended effect (humiliate the perpetrator) are often the same.

It is not surprising that public shaming in lockdown or circuit breaker mode is on the rise. Some may point to increased stress levels (we’re all a little edgy) but I would propose it is also because we are actively negotiating new social norms, which in themselves are fluid and in flux, thanks to an evolving virus.

These shifting norms means that what one person thinks is or might be acceptable may be construed as wholly unacceptable by another.

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If we simply consider the act of wearing face masks, even face shields, we can see how much the “rules” have changed, sometimes over a period of days.


If public shaming was “publicised” in pre-Internet days, such publicity is now turbocharged through social media and algorithms. Through the use of images and narratives, individuals and groups are transformed into single-issue topics. Oftentimes, all we know about a perpetrator is their supposed act of deviance.

In sociology, these acts of online shaming can be compared to what Simon Garfinkel would call a “degradation ceremony” – a ritual in which an individual has their social identity or status lowered in a particular group or society’s hierarchy.

To cite a violation of a social norm is thus to punish the perpetrator for stepping outside the boundaries of acceptability. To do this online is to accentuate that transgression to as many individuals as possible, so as to magnify “sin and shame”.

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The woman is seen arguing with people in videos circulating online.

For the more cynical among us, we might speculate that the reason for so much shaming, both online and offline, is in part a way of establishing social dominance over another party, by becoming the arbitrator of society’s rules. 

If you cannot beat them, and you cannot join them, then shame them or even scold them (but that’s a topic for another commentary).


Scholars have long pointed out that the online realm offers various affordances that encourage poor behaviour – anonymity, physical distance and lack of physical retribution allow individuals to troll and dox without fear of immediate consequences to themselves.

The problem is further compounded when one takes “online comments” into consideration. An individual does not even have to cite an infraction to engage in online shaming, they simply need to find a story or incident someone else has posted and join what is colloquially called “the Internet lynch mob”.

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When this happens, any initial intentions of regulating social norms is now replaced by a desire to do harm. 

Rather than helping to correct an individual’s behaviour (assuming there was even behaviour that had to be corrected), the focus shifts to a model of a swift reckoning and maximum social harm - to make the individual lose their job, get deported, or even face jail time.

Inevitably, such harm ignores the perceived infraction and focusses on traits unrelated to the initial incident – ethnicity, nationality and gender are common targets because such traits are easy and convenient ways for individuals to discriminate and marginalise.

These actions are what we call “othering” – the social construction of an identity that is “different” from the majority, and thus acts as a justification for physical and symbolic violence. We have seen such actions around the world, targeted at both individuals and groups.

At its most extreme, othering leads to de-humanisation, where an individual or group is no longer seen as human, and thus can be treated as an object to be discarded and destroyed.


It is very tempting to call out bad behaviour online – tapping “share” on your mobile device followed by an angry-face emoticon appears to do nothing more than act as an outlet for your anger and frustration at things you cannot control.

File photo of a mobile phone user. (Photo: Xabryna Kek) File photo of a mobile phone.

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Likewise, adding fuel to an Internet fire with angry comments becomes a way for us to belong to the cool group, the “right” side of history. That is why many tabloid newspapers write headlines and stories the way they do, to stir up emotions and comments, all in the name of online engagement numbers.

But all actions have consequences, even if those consequences appear to be miles away from us. We need to see that society (both online and offline) is not some structure that we inhabit and have no control over.

What we do builds society, for better or worse. If we allow raging and shaming to be the default actions in our personal, everyday lives, then we would have created a world that knows only rage and shame.

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Source: CNA/sl


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