#Activism. Not familiar with the term? Try and recall #HeforShe, #Yesallwomen or #Bringbackourgirls. Leading to some of the most powerful social media movements of the last few years, “hashtag activism” is now often referred to as Facebook revolutions.

However, have you heard of the recent Ashley Madison hacking scandal or glanced over Rachel Dolezal’s Twitter account?  If you have, chances are you’ve noticed a significant number of angry comments from those who are using social media to express their extreme dissatisfaction.

Up until the late 1900s, public shaming in small communities was widely used as an official punishment. However, the evolution of the Internet, followed by exponential globalization, has widened the boundaries of who constitutes the “public” and the resulting repercussions.

While often associated with politicians and celebrities, public shaming has crept its way into the lives of ordinary children and students, establishing its roots in social media and presenting itself as online bullying.

Justine Sacco’s example shows how one careless comment can not only lead to a dismissal from your job and disappointment from your family, but also scornful remarks from strangers all over the world. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” was the ill-considered tweet sent just before she boarded the 11-hour flight from Heathrow to Cape Town. It caused Sacco to become the number one worldwide trend on Twitter, and also opened her up to enraged remarks from strangers criticizing her and her employers online. The uproar caused her to lose her job and the respect of her family and friends.

As students, a strong similarity to the Sacco incident can be seen by how easily students join in on “ridiculing-bandwagons” on social media, especially Facebook pages in which they maintain anonymity.

“I find it surprising how often we forget [that] the person we collectively comment against on the confessions pages, while remaining anonymous, still remains a distressed student just like all of us,” says Rubani Qaumi, a fourth-year student pursuing a major in biology for health science.

A 2011 University of Toronto Scarborough study, “Ironic Effects of Antiprejudice Messages: How Motivational Interventions Can Reduce (but Also Increase) Prejudice”, discusses how imposing antiprejudice ideas on others can in fact result in those people reacting with increased prejudice.  Paradoxically, while contributing to public shaming may seem like a good way to stop prejudice, it can actually have the reverse effect.

Although the motivations for participating in such public shaming acts may vary, the most frequently seen cause remains common: mental health.

“Students who are plugged in are exposed to content that has been digitally manipulated and retouched; fashioned to inspire envy and poised to aggravate insecurities,” says Jordan Foster, the team leader for Peer Health Education on mental health.

“Our mission is to create a positive and safe environment in which students can discuss a given issue,” says Foster.

The rise of the Internet has given us freedom of expression, but has it also robbed us of the freedom to make mistakes? Being an empathetic bystander is increasingly becoming insufficient in the face of strong online resentment.

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