As TED’s social media editor, I have seen a lot of nasty comments. I’ve seen grown men and women deride a 14-year-old girl for her choice of dress. I’ve seen them say they’re revolted by a beautiful transgender woman. On every talk about race, I’ve seen a slew of racist comments. But none have ever been as bad as the comments we got when we published Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame. At least at first.
When Monica spoke at TED2015, held in March in Vancouver, the audience in the room received her with warmth and generosity of spirit. Many who’d had reservations were swayed by her talk. We saw this kind, vulnerable, strong woman who wanted to be heard — a woman who knew what was at stake for the victims of public shaming and who deeply hoped to get her message right. For someone scarred by years of public abuse, we gave her a safe space.
When we posted her talk online a few days later, the safety we’d created in that room went out the window.
As soon as her talk went up on Facebook, in too little time for anyone to have actually watched the 20-minute video, the comment thread was deluged with vitriol and hatred. People called her a slut and a whore, made jokes about sucking dick, and said she deserves the shaming because “shaming is an important part of how we shape our culture.” They attacked her character, her appearance, her choices, even her right to live. One commenter blamed her both for Al Gore losing the presidency in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks.
I usually have a pretty thick skin for nasty comments. In this profession I’ve had to develop one, though of course I hardly relish having commenters tell me to shove a gun in my mouth and blow my head off, as has happened in the past. But nothing prepared me for this. Such an outpouring of negativity wore down my defenses, exposing a side of humanity that felt so vicious, unfeeling and unrelenting that my sense of existential aloneness was brought into high definition.
As I read hundreds of hideous comments, I suddenly realized I was being subjected to a tiny fraction of what Monica has experienced every day since she was 24 years old, essentially every day of her adult life. I can only begin to imagine how profoundly these hateful comments must have shaped her self-worth. We all find our self-esteem shaken when we feel insulted or disrespected. But to have the entire world insult you to your face — for 17 years straight? That’s abuse on another level.
When my boss asked me how the comments were going, I broke down in tears. That profound moment Monica had had with our live audience was shattered, and I was struggling to maintain her safe space.
Nonetheless, we persevered. We had three people monitoring the comments, and we were deliberately aggressive with comment moderation. The point of her talk was the danger of online bullying; what would we be if we simply provided a high-profile forum for haters to bash her? We deleted any comments that attacked, disrespected or shamed her, and we responded to positive comments to pull them to the top of the Facebook thread.
Of course, some people missed the point. One woman was furious that we were deleting the “anti-Monica” comments, as if it should be acceptable to attack who Monica is as a person. Others felt that we were censoring their freedom of speech, a freedom they seem to feel comes without regard for the harm they might do to another human being.
But then an interesting thing happened. After hours spent boosting the positive comments and purging most of the brutish ones, the tide started to turn. People started to write things like, “Brave woman. My first reaction was negative before I even clicked the link — then I realized that was the whole point and why she was the perfect person to give this talk.” Or, “Politics aside, I respect the fact that Ms. Lewinsky is now demanding to write her own story. Too often we allow shame to silence our stories.” The flood of vitriolic comments dried up to a trickle.
While it took much longer and was much more work for Monica, this is actually how we deal with all negative comment threads. When we clearly show what is and is not acceptable, the tone does change. People who want to share thoughtful comments start to feel that theirs are welcome, and people who want to spew hatred start to realize theirs are not. It may not change people’s reactions, but it does change the sample of voices that chooses to speak up.
I think of that moment of sea change like a sort of herd immunity. The positive voices, when there are enough of them, keep abusive ones from spreading, just as a mostly vaccinated population protects those few people who are not. Together, we have the power to protect the most vulnerable among us.
This phenomenon is Monica’s message in action. She asks us to be “upstanders,” to speak up and stand up for those who are victims of our culture of shame. No one deserves a scarlet letter, and when we make people pay a public price for their private actions, we are demonstrating a radical failure of empathy. When we speak up, with something as simple as a supportive Facebook comment, we make it clear that our culture is not a space for public shame and humiliation.
Monica had a beautiful line in her talk: “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of speech, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of speech.” It is time for us to take responsibility.
Featured photo via iStock, photo illustration by Emily Pidgeon/TED.