Social Media and Shaming — The ‘Scarlet A’ Meme

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The Scarlet A Meme

We will be discussing the topic of social shaming and how it gets distributed across the internet. This new media phenomenon is a cross between gossip, bullying, and grassroots justice that has affected so many different types of individuals at many different age groups. Almost everyone has an experience to share that directly involves themselves, a friend, family member, child, and the impact it has on their internet behavior as well as their behavior in everyday society. Is this problem so bad that we can say depression and suicide can be the result of social shaming? The question remains, is all shaming bad? Are there any positive effects that shaming can have on society as a whole? Our goal is to analyze, track, and understand the basis for this sociological behavior and the major impact it is having on our society.

Madianou (2012) defines shame as a social emotion that requires an audience. The emotion of shame is the result of one’s awareness of the audience’s disapproval of one’s actions or imperfections. Social norms have developed a pattern in regard to shame, and a model has been constructed to better explain the effects of a shame appeal:

Do A, or you will feel shame.

Feeling shame is undesirable.

Therefore you ought to prevent shame if possible.

But the only way for you to prevent shame is to do A.

Therefore, you ought to do A (Walton, 2000).


Thus, shame has becomes society’s method of negative reinforcement to conform to the social norm. It is one’s need to be accepted in society that can cause one to feel shame over one’s imperfections or unacceptable behaviors (Nussbaum, 2004). As of recent, social media websites have made it easier for society to shame, or point a finger, at other’s imperfections and/or unacceptable behaviors. For instance, just minutes after Miley Cyrus’ 2013 performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards, people began to place shame on her actions. However, Miley Cyrus experienced the very opposite effect of the public shaming. Her album sales soared to number one. Miley Cyrus was able to accept her individuality, and did not feel the need to be accepted.  Thus, the viral spread of shaming became a great source of advertising.

Social media has become more than just a hobby, social media is a way a life. Social media gives everyone their own personal outlet, but is that a good thing? We will be discussing social shaming and how it gets distributed across the internet. This new media phenomenon is a cross between gossip, bullying, and grassroots justice, that has affected so many different types of individuals. For example, Rebecca Ann Sedwick was cyber bullied for a year before she jumped to her death off of a cement platform; according to the New York Times. This is not the only family that has experienced this, almost everyone as experienced a situation were social media has played a part negatively or positively in their everyday lives. So the question remains, Is social shaming always a bad thing? Can social shaming have a positive ending? Our goal is to understand the basis for this sociological behavior and the major impact it is having on our society.

Social shaming in historical context: Hester Prynne at the stocks – an engraved illustration from an 1878 edition. (From Wikipedia ‘The Scarlet A’)

While most internet shaming focuses on the negative, there are some people who believe that internet shaming can also be used for good. In 1996, Congress enacted Megan’s Law requiring the public to be notified when a registered sex offender moves into their area (Office of Justice Programs). Wherever these sex offenders went, they were required to let local authorities know of their criminal history, and the local authorities were required to notify the public of their presence. The internet allowed for this sex offender information to be made public online, and outed these sex offenders to anyone with internet access, not just those who lived nearby. The public shaming and tracking of sex offenders was considered a possible deterrent to those who may commit the same crimes (Drake and Aos, 2009). However, giving the public access to such unfiltered information also had its downside. One man in Washington State, Patrick Drum, used this information to hunt down and kill two registered sex offenders in an act of vigilante justice (Bartkewicz, 2012). We might be able to harness the internet to publicly shame those who have committed crimes, but once this information is on the internet, we have no control over who sees it, or what they choose to do with the information.


Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. (n/a) Legislative History. Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved from

Drake, E., and Aos, S. (June 2009) Does Sex Offender Registration and Notification Reduce Crime? A Systematic Review of the Research Literature. Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved from

Bartkewicz, A. (September 19, 2012) Unrepentant Washington Vigilante Who Killed Two Registered Sex Offenders Gets Life in Prison. New York Daily News. Retrieved from

Wehmhoener, K. (2010) Social norm or social harm: An exploratory study of Internet vigilantism. Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Paper 11572. Retrieved from

Parsons, C. (May 8, 2012) Shame Justice on Social Media: How it Hurts and Ways to Limit it. Available at SSRN. Retrieved from

Madianou, M. (2012). News as a looking-glass: Shame and the symbolic power of mediation.

International Journal of Cultural Studies, 15(1), 3-16. doi: 10.1177/1367877911411795

Nussbaum, M.C. (2004). Hiding from humanity: Disgust, shame and the law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Walton, D. (2000). The place of Emotion in argument. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.