Monica Lewinsky and The Price of Shame

Plenty of scandals have taken place since Monica Lewinsky’s in 1998, making hers old news. However, Lewinsky is back in the media, using her story to advocate against cyber bulling and the “culture of humiliation” that has been created by the digital revolution.

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In a recent TED Talk, Lewinsky remembers her scandal and the speed with which it became international news. Her story, which she says was “brought to you by the digital revolution”, was the first instance of digital media having a larger role than traditional media. The Internet allowed her to go from a private figure to a public one overnight, and with that status came the first real case of online cyber bullying.

Lewinsky cites plenty of negative comments in the form of photos, TV clips, rap lyrics, news articles and more. The online cyber bulling, both by media publications and individual trolls, led to over a decade of seclusion for the humiliated 22-year-old. She emerged from this seclusion to cite more recent incidents of cyber bullying, some with endings more tragic than hers. To fight this, Lewinsky says we need an Internet intervention that changes beliefs and eventually behavior online.

Several things from Lewinsky’s story stood out to me. First was the role that media played in her bullying. The media, whose job it is to report on events and scandals like this one, played a major part in branding Lewinsky with the reputation that she will always live with. I wonder if the scandal had occurred in today’s media landscape, in which it seems more acceptable for publications to have personalities, opinions and political affiliations, a media organization would step up to defend Lewinsky? With the massive number of opinions circulating on the web today, it seems easier to find an argument for both sides of any story. This could potentially have given Lewinsky some hope and reassurance.

Second, I wonder about the effect of social media on a scandal of this size. I’m sure her story would have spread faster and the individual trolls would have had more opportunity to comment on it. Social media seems to still be working out how to handle cyber bullying and Internet threats, meaning the existence of social media in 1998 would likely have made Lewinsky’s situation far worse.

The most important point made by Lewinsky is the need for change. Regardless of the scandal, people continue to capitalize on the public shaming of others, and the Internet only allows this humiliation to spread. Changing this attitude and the ease with which users can hide behind a screen are crucial two steps in ending the culture of humiliation.

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