The Five Stages of Getting Publicly Shamed on the Internet

From the calling out, to the Twitter storm, to the shame-faced statement. Rinse and repeat.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Here we go again. Somebody's accidentally let the infernal swamp of badness that exists inside of their soul bubble to the surface, where it's eked noxious ooze out and into the slipstream of the internet. Oops! They've done a racist tweet, a homophobic Facebook rant, an ableist Snapchat story, and now everybody knows what a bad person they are. People who previously had no idea they existed are now flooding their mentions with four-letter words and death threats. This is an internet shaming—an online pants-down—and it is only going to get worse.


Yesterday, it was the turn of south London artist Hetty Douglas. Before last night she was only known to a small circle of art students for work which basically amounts to blobs of paint with phrases like "ur fit do u wanna finger my m8" written over them. Now, since a tweet featuring a problematic comment Douglas made on Instagram went viral, every bored student and Sun-reader in the UK wants her blood.

So what can she expect from the coming days? What have we learned from the many internet shaming of old? With every passing scandal, the internet has become a leaner, more efficient ignominy engine, obliterating careers in record times. But how? Pray silence, and mute your notifications, as we consider the five stages of an internet shaming.

STEP 1: The Call Out

Step one. The culprit wakes up bleary-eyed from a nap—perhaps they've been watching a film, or just had their phone on silent—and chaos reigns. They have 165 notifications. Suddenly a deathly sweat breaks across the back of their neck. They know what this is going to be about. This is the simplest stage of all. The hurtful deed has been done, and someone has noticed. Whether it's racist, sexist, or simply Gregg Wallace asking someone cycling 180 miles for Macmillan Cancer Support to spell his name properly, the first step is being noticed.

For Douglas it was the image of three men in line at McDonald's—captioned "these guys look like they got one GCSE [general certificate of secondary education]"—that rightly earned her the scorn of the nation. For the bearded house music producer, and Giegling co-founder, Konstantin, it was an interview with German magazine Groove in which he publicly stated that women were "usually worse at DJing than men." For the English comedian Dave Rufus Hound it was the suggestion that Theresa May had allowed the Manchester bombings to take place in order to boost Conservative support in the run-up to the election. For all of them, it was the beginning of the end.


STEP 2: The Storm

This is where things really get going. The callout has been retweeted, and now the gangs are coming in—couple of rude digs at first, but slowly the rate intensifies. A 19-year old Tab writer is making shit jokes about the culprit's profile picture. People are tagging sponsors and booking agents and calling for boycotts. This is savage. This is a mauling. The TL is dripping with sweat and blood and indignation. And laughter: uproarious, howling, screaming laughter. Christ, even the BuzzFeed writers are getting involved now. Weird middle-aged men who spend all day on Twitter are taking jabs. There's a hashtag going around. People are suffixing it with "gate" now. It's a gate. Rob Delaney's having a pop. It's gone transatlantic. Someone who used to work for Gawker is penning a reaction piece for their Medium. Somebody from the Mirror is in the thread asking for a follows. This very second, a thousand freelancers are pitching "Actually This Tweet Is Part Of A Bigger Problem" pieces. The Guardian has just commissioned a 5,000-word examination of the structural inequalities the shit-post exposes. This is fully out of hand. Will this Vesuvian outburst ever be contained?

Jon Ronson's excellent account of the Justine Sacco incident—when a PR officer tweeted a very badly-judged AIDS joke before a trip to South Africa—gives a pretty dark insight into how quickly the Twitter storm can explode. And indeed, his book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, explores the issue in many more words than I can here.


STEP 3: The Disappearance

Then silence. The quiet falls like snow upon fallow land. The culprit has deleted all social media accounts and gone into hiding. This is usually followed by an announcement that future shows, events, exhibitions will be canceled. Their employer has probably sacked them, their agent dropped them, and their mother publicly disowned them on. Yet the culprit is nowhere to be seen. The pace of the initial tweets begins to slow, the collective anger turns into a sort of grubby, post-coital panting. Everyone slinks off Twitter and back to, you know, their jobs and families and stuff.

Within an hour of her shaming beginning to spread, Hetty Douglas had deleted her Instagram account. This is par for the course: Levon Vincent's bizarre Facebook post recommending people carry knives after the Paris attacks went the same way as Diplo's tweet about R Kelly's sex cult*—off and away into the ether. Except that everybody and their grandmother knows what the screen grab shortcut is now, so nothing is ever really gone, is it?

*Quick one: why is it so often DJs involved in online scandals? Is it all the late nights and drugs and long-haul flights on comedowns that drives them to the edge of appropriateness? Or are they just, by and large, not very nice people? Answers on a postcard, please.

STEP 4: The Statement

Okay. Time for a deep breath and the carefully worded statement. Struggling to know how best to phrase yours? Here are some old chestnuts from the archives:


– This was deeply out of character, I have been under a lot of stress both at work and home.
– This was a badly judged joke, one I never meant to be offensive, and one I deeply regret making.
– I am going to embark on an extensive educational course to further my knowledge about the lived experience of the groups I upset.
– I have a drinking problem.
– Sorry, I didn't know it was Remembrance day when I sent those sponsored tweets about suitcases.
– "I guess the whole #hypernormalization of bizarre and inhuman acts has made me awful."
– How can I hate women? My mom's one.
– Ask any of my friends and they will tell you this isn't me. I'm not a racist. I'm not a sexist. I'm not a huge asshole.
– "I'm really busted up over this."
– Actually, when you think about it, I'm sort of making fun of myself.

Or they go full Ten Walls, who claimed he was just as confused and hurt as everyone else. "My post made no sense, even to me. I'm a musician. My music is for everyone in this world. I always try to unite people to promote respect, equality, and tolerance, love and peace," he wrote, after comparing homosexuals to pedophiles and animals.

STEP 5: The Legacy

Screengrab via Pepsi.

Now, as the time goes by, the big question is: Will they get away with it? Well, the formula here is essentially: fame VS fuck up. How famous you were before the incident will determine how likely you are to recover.

If you're already famous and you didn't fuck up that bad—sort of Jason Manford sexting level—you'll probably get away with it. However, if you're already famous but you fucked up terribly—let's say, Seinfeld's Michael Richards' horrible rant—your career will be defined by that moment for the rest of your life. Sadly, if you weren't very famous before, then it doesn't matter how badly you fucked up. This is you now. You will never work in entertainment again, honey. This is the end. Lesser-known Giegling-man Konstantin's entire label was being wiped from festival bookings after his slip-up, whereas UK techno mainstay Scuba seems to be able to do something idiotic every six months or so without his touring schedule suffering too badly.

As for Hetty Douglas, well perhaps she'll come back fighting—maybe she'll scrawl the words "sorry werking class ppl" on a paint-splattered canvas—but you'd expect the likelihood of any big galleries showing her work to be pretty slim. She joins the starry sky of forgotten shit-posters, bigots, and jerks that Twitter has decimated because it was 5 PM on a Monday and they were a bit bored.

Once completed, return to step 1 and wait for the next one.

Follow Angus Harrison on Twitter.