The Digital Whipping Post

Poor Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor and probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate couldn’t have foreseen the firestorm that would erupt as a result of his inviting ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to speak at a Manhattan campaign event.

What began as an opportunity to mingle with members of the moneyed elite ended in Walker’s being overshadowed by Giuliani’s vitriol. Giuliani said President Obama “did not love America” and “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”

Not surprisingly, his words stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy, especially when he later doubled down­­, shrugging off criticism that his remarks were at best tone deaf and at worst racist.

Also not surprising was that the online response was immediate, immense and intense. While many confined their outrage to the barbs cited above, others took Giuliani to task for everything from his response to the 9/11 attacks to his checkered marital history and even to allegations that his father had been a bagman for the mob.



In the New York Times’ comment sections, some decried their fellow readers’ personal attacks, saying it was OK to rip Giuliani for his verbal assault on the president but unfair to mention the skeletons in his closet. One commenter, however, identified a phenomenon that’s emerged as one of the hallmarks of digital society: “In today’s neo-Puritan world, the Internet serves as a high-tech pillory. When someone says something disagreeable, we must shame him. [Giuliani], you have been hauled into the town square; let the shaming, followed by the shunning, begin.”

In some circles, this practice is called dragging. The vast informational reservoirs of the Internet ensure that long-forgotten items capable of putting someone in a less-than-positive light can be unearthed, while the mechanisms of social media ensure that such inconvenient truths will be deployed to maximum devastating and/or humiliating effect. A good dragging can elicit an apology, a retraction or, in extreme cases, the deletion of social media accounts. In Giuliani’s case, he penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to “clarify,” but not apologize for his remarks.

The fact is the Internet and social media have replaced the dunce cap and stocks as instruments of public humiliation. And while in the past one could perhaps simply get out of Dodge to escape the shame and start fresh, today’s digital scarlet letter leaves virtually nowhere to hide.

By Erin Wright, Graduate Student

Master of Arts in Emerging Media

Loyola University Maryland

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