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Public shaming; Photo: stephbeff @Flickr

Public shaming on social media

Social media can be used as a platform upon which we can discuss and debate our way into a brighter, more tolerant future. But what happens when an individual suddenly finds themselves exposed to the scathing opinions of millions of its users?

New York woman Jennifer Connell is a recent victim of this exposure. Connell came under attack after news came to light that she had issued a $127,000 lawsuit against her 12-year-old nephew for breaking her wrist with an overly enthusiastic hug.

Cue social media eruption. Thousands shared the story on Facebook and many Tweeted their disgust, along with the hashtag #worstauntever. Countless strangers publicly shamed her online, calling her ‘World’s Worst Aunt’, ‘Aunt From Hell’ and ‘The Auntie-Christ’. One Twitter user claimed that they wish she had broken her neck instead. Within a few days, Jennifer Connell found herself being demonised and vilified relentlessly by the online community.

However, details about the case eventually emerged that cast a different light on Connell’s motivations. Her insurance company offered her only $1 compensation to cover her extortionate medical bills, so following her lawyer’s advice, she reluctantly issued a lawsuit against her nephew. The compensation would have been paid by an insurance company, not by the boy himself. So, in actual fact, she was forced to take legal action in order to pay for her surgery.

Connell described the social media uproar on the US Today show as “heartbreaking,” saying it was like “walking into a film of someone else’s life.” In fact, the story did have a fictional element to it, as though it had been moulded to form a neat, familiar narrative. Connell plays the antagonistic ‘evil aunt’, reminiscent of the ‘evil stepmother’ character trope from fairy tales.

Social media becomes a pantomime, and we become the audience, booing and hissing the villains off the stage. We form a powerful collective; the Keyboard Warriors, fighting injustice and bringing down the bad guys. A woman is suing her nephew, you say? A helpless boy, betrayed by his greedy, evil aunt? Bring her to justice! Pitchforks and popcorn at the ready!

Jennifer Connell, like all of us, isn’t perfect. But does she really deserve to be torn down by an avalanche of misinformed, misdirected abuse by millions of strangers? The fact that she was forced to file a lawsuit against a 12-year-old boy is outrageous. Wouldn’t it be more progressive if we could capture this outrage and direct it towards the real culprits? Let’s not attack a desperate woman who can’t afford to pay for necessary surgery, but the system that puts a $127,000 price tag on a broken wrist. In vilifying individuals like Connell, we are letting the real villains get away.

How about we put down the pitchforks and use social media to bring about positive change instead? It’s about time we closed the curtain on public shaming once and for all.

Tags: $127000, jennifer connell, public shaming, social media

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