TV & Movies

Online Bullying: Humiliation in the Digital Age

2014 was the year of celebrity hacks, Twitter mobs and doxxing rape victims. Can we survive the ugly new era of public shaming?

Photo, Vladimir Serov/Blend Images/Corbis. online bullying

(Photo: Vladimir Serov/Blend Images/Corbis)

When Ken Manning* speaks at high schools, he comes prepared with an array of photos. Most are of his daughter — here she is, hugging a dog; look, you can see how much she loved art. Once he senses that his audience is paying attention, Manning starts to talk about the girl in the pictures. He tells them her name. Chances are they know it. When she was 15, he says, she went to a party, where she was the victim of an alleged gang rape; one of the perpetrators took a photo of the incident and passed it around to a friend, then a friend of a friend, then a friend of a friend of a friend. Before long, it seemed like everyone had seen the picture. They called her a slut. They sent her nasty texts. They mocked and harassed her, in person and online. In April 2013, a year and a half after that party, Manning’s daughter took her own life.

Sometimes, he follows up with another image, a stock photo of a little boy beating the heck out of another kid. “This was me in grade 7,” he says of the kid being hit. “I got beat up and I’d be crying, but [when I went home], I was safe.” He swaps that shot for another one, the same photo of the two boys repeated a thousand times over. “This is someone who gets beat up today,” he says. When he finishes speaking, most of the time, the teachers tell him they’ve never seen the student body so quiet.

For Manning, these visits are essential. They’re a chance to be on the front lines, to confront his daughter’s death at a source, if not the source. The alleged assault may have been the core of her trauma, but the events that followed, in which a rape victim became a target of viral ridicule, not only reopened that wound but re-inflicted it, over and over. “I don’t understand where the meanness comes from,” Manning says. He’s visiting Toronto from Nova Scotia, on a kind of informal speaking tour. The next day, he’ll appear at the White Ribbon Campaign’s What Makes a Man conference. “Maybe it has to do with the fact that they don’t have to look at someone’s face and see the broken look and the tears and the anguish. It brings out something in people.”

Manning’s daughter is a recent, heartbreaking example of online humiliation as entertainment, but she’s not the first. Shame is the viral infection of our digital age. We see it with hacked intimate photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Gabrielle Union; with teens being outed by spying college roommates; with revenge porn, where private sexual images are posted (usually by exes) without consent; and with jeering tabloid spreads featuring paparazzi shots of celebs without makeup. We see it in the aftermath of Rolling Stone‘s collapsing article about campus rape at University of Virginia, when conservative blogger Charles Johnson published the full name and photograph of Jackie, the woman at the centre of the story whom he calls “rape-obsessed.” (The photo is in fact of another woman, now suing Johnson.)

In an era when a photo can pass through an entire friend network a moment after it’s taken and a tweet can reach millions in a millisecond, mass humiliation has become as simple and effortless as sneezing. And we are in the middle of an epidemic. Experts are starting to understand what shame does to a person — what we’ve yet to figure out is how to contain it.

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This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.