“The slut-shaming, fat-shaming, name-calling and late-night jokes seemed endless,” Monica Lewinsky said, recalling 1998. That’s when she grabbed the world’s attention — first, as the 22-year-old with whom President Bill Clinton claimed he “did not have sexual relations,” and then, after the House of Representatives made public independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report on the scandal, as the woman whose sex life appeared in explicit detail on the still-fledgling World Wide Web.
“I was Patient Zero of having a reputation completely destroyed worldwide because of the Internet,” she narrates in the new documentary “15 Minutes of Shame,” premiering Oct. 7 on HBO Max.
The film, for which she was a co-executive producer, features a newspaper clip from the time, bearing the headline “Search for Starr’s report causes cyber-gridlock” above a photo of gleeful faces crowded around a monitor. Twenty-three years later, the country is no less gleeful in response to online humiliation. What’s more, social media has upgraded us from spectators to participants.
Moving backward from 1998, the documentary traces the history of public humiliation — including in ancient Athens where people literally voted one another off the island with shards of pottery called ostraka (a root of the word “ostracize”). Moving forward, it provides context for and implicates Big Tech in the proliferation of online shaming. And along the way, it investigates the psychology behind our enduring attraction to this human proclivity. Tiffany Watt Smith — who studies schadenfreude, or delight in another’s misfortune — explains, “There are studies that show that dopamine is released when we see a transgressor being punished.”
In addition to interviewing more than a dozen experts — including social commentator Roxane Gay, tech ethicist Tristan Harris, a neuroscientist, a cyber psychologist and a slew of academics — the filmmakers follow the personal narratives of several Americans who’ve been targeted by humiliation campaigns on social media in the past few years.
We meet Matt Colvin, shamed for having 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer in his garage during the coronavirus pandemic; Emmanuel Cafferty, called out for allegedly flashing a white-supremacy hand signal during a Black Lives Matter protest; and Laura Krolczyk, who cracked an insensitive joke at the expense of Trump supporters. Each story is more complicated than it sounds. All lost their jobs and were threatened with violence.
Public shaming can be especially rampant against women — in part because it sells. “Trolling women is big business on the Internet,” Safiya Noble, professor of African American studies, explains in the film. “The more [platforms] can spin that story in a shameful, degrading, titillating way, the more money they’re going to make.”
When asked whether men and women are shamed differently, the film’s director and co-executive producer, Max Joseph (former host of “Catfish: The TV Show”), said: “Women have often been publicly shamed around issues of sexuality and chastity, or if they’re too individualistic, whereas with men, it generally has to do with cowardice, masculinity, or if you’re not honest in business.”
A roll call of woman-shaming in America includes the scarlet letter of Puritan times, dress codes in schools designed to make girls less distracting, the disgust leveled at public breastfeeding and body-shaming tabloid photos of aging celebrities on beaches.
Whatever the shame flavor, women of color have always borne an especially nasty brunt. A 2018 Amnesty International study found women of color are 34 percent more likely to receive abusive tweets — and Black women 84 percent more likely — than White women.
In a phone interview with The Lily, Lewinsky also drew a gendered distinction between consequences: “To be doxed is frightening for anybody. To be doxed as a woman and have someone say, ‘I’m going to come rape you’? It feels a little different.”
She added that it can be harder for women than men to bounce back from a shaming. “Society is willing to give men a second chance faster,” she said. After masturbating during a Zoom meeting, former New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin is now employed at CNN. #MeToo-era disgraced comic Louis C.K. is on a comeback tour across America. Meanwhile, 14 years after her meltdown was ridiculed by media and the public, performer Britney Spears only now seems close to escaping an all-controlling conservatorship.
Experts say the struggle to bounce back is especially hard for marginalized populations, who often hold less power and tend already to be stressed by day-to-day struggles. “Not only are they having to deal with the emotional stress caused by the harassment, they’re still dealing with all of the things that make them marginalized, whether racism, transphobia, classism, whatever,” journalist Aja Romano said in an interview with The Lily (she also appears in the film).
Women further struggle to recover from humiliation because of its psychological effects. Alisa Angelone, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and trauma, explained that women report more feelings of shame than men do, and are more likely to turn feelings of guilt into shame. “Guilt is like, ‘I’ve done something awful.’ Shame is like, ‘I am an awful person,’ ” she explained.
Lewinsky experienced feelings of shame for years, she told The Lily: “I was angry at various people, but for the most part, I put the blame on myself. It wasn’t until years and years later that I started to see it differently.”
Still, public shaming can be devastating to any target. And as the film argues, every case has its own nuance and context.
The documentary’s third act profiles a different kind of harassment campaign, a hate crime. On Taylor Dumpson’s first day as the first Black student government president at American University, in May 2017, bananas hung from nooses on campus. Andrew Anglin had used neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer to sic his followers on Dumpson. The campaign continued.
In the ensuing months, Dumpson has said, she lost 15 percent of her body weight. In January 2018, she resigned her position. However, in August 2019, she won a $725,000 judgment against Anglin. With another defendant in the case, she sought restorative justice: education, community service and counseling.
During the phone interview, Lewinsky depicted public shaming campaigns as having “a long tail,” resulting in unanticipated and far-reaching ramifications. Sometimes those tails bend toward justice. Usually, they don’t.
With the overwhelming influence social media has over public discourse, Joseph sees a “rising tide” of humiliation. “It’s getting higher, and humanity might be getting lost,” he said. “How much does it have to do with justice, how much with entertainment, how much with being stuck in a system that might be profiting off of certain stories?”
By design, the film offers more questions than answers. But there are takeaways. One, think before you retweet. Two, social media companies should be held accountable.
Harris, the tech ethicist, lays out the complicity of engagement-based advertising, which fuels social media’s business model by encouraging us to grow angry enough to click. “We are more profitable if we are addicted, outraged, irritable, disinformed, and polarized, than if we are a human being,” he says in the film. However, thanks to Section 230, a 1994 law immunizing website platforms from damage caused by third-party content, none of these companies can be sued.
When asked what they hope viewers will do after watching the film, Joseph replied: “Monica and I have collectively had a lot of therapy. A good therapist doesn’t tell you what to do. They ask the unsettling question that you carry around.”
The most overt call to action in the film comes in its last two minutes from professor and human rights activist Loretta Ross, who calls for us to embrace “radical love, starting with love for self, and calling on myself to be the best human being I can be.”