This month, my Scientific American column addressed the growing frequency and intensity of online shamings—massive outpourings of threats and vicious hate showered on people whose judgment lapses make them internet targets. Often the victims pay for their mistakes in horrific, life-shattering ways, far out of proportion for the crimes—losing their jobs, homes, marriages and any shred of self-worth.
Equally often, they pay this steep price because of missing context—because the public misunderstood the original story and, too impatient for nuance and complexity, man the torpedoes without fully grasping the situation.
The story of Jennifer Connell is a classic example. In 2011 she attended her nephew Sean’s eighth birthday party at his home in Connecticut. As she arrived, Sean ran up to her and gave her a jumping hug—and knocked her over, breaking her wrist.
Sean’s family’s homeowners insurance company refused to pay for the three surgeries required to fix it—and in Connecticut, you can’t name an insurance company as a defendant. So her lawyer recommended a roundabout way of getting reimbursed: Sue the nephew. If the jury went her way, hisfamily’s homeowner’s insurance would haveto pay the $127,000 medical bill.
Clearly, those legal technicalities were too much for the online mobs (or even the mainstream media) to process. They descended in a fury, calling her “the auntie-Christ.”
“He should have broken her neck!” went a typical tweet. “She is disgusting and vile. I hope someone breaks her other wrist…and maybe her legs as well.” “Die, Jennifer Connell, Die.” “What a horrible b___. #auntfromhell.” “Since it’s illegal to flog her, we can all do our best to shame her to death.”
And so on.
Connell lost her suit. Worse, like many shaming victims, she began having trouble getting work (she’s a consultant). One potential employer after another Googled her, saw that she had a toxic backstory, and rescinded their job offers or canceled her interviews.
She has now changed her hair color and taken other steps to “refresh” her identity, as she puts it.
At no point was there any ill will between her and Sean’s family. (“I felt like everybody was saying stuff that they didn’t know,” Sean, now 12, told the Today show. “I love her, and she loves me.”)
And at no point was the intention to get money from Sean or his family—only from their homeowners’ insurance. The public got the story wrong, and destroyed a woman’s life in the process.
Connell’s story is typical—and instructive. In example after example, online lynch mobs go after someone without knowing the whole story. And life after life is broken.