On Jan 17, Twitter user Vivek was eating at a restaurant when he saw a sight that made his blood boil.
Of the patrons seated at the table next to his, three were eating, while the fourth, who appeared to be their domestic helper, was not.
He snapped a photo of the scene and posted it on his Twitter account, accompanied with the caption: “I absolute HATE people who does this. You bring your helper out to a restaurant and you don’t give her food. She sits there watching you eat. Where is your heart? Just because she is a maid, she can’t eat at the same time.
“I hope y’all get food poisoning.”
His tweet went viral, racking up over 12,000 retweets, and hundreds of outraged comments, before it was later deleted.
In a similar vein, a Redditor, who has since deleted his account, was strolling along Tampines when he spotted a blind tissue-seller reading the newspapers.
The sign beside the elderly man read: “I am blind, unable to work. I can only sell tissue paper. Please help me. Thank you for your support.”
The Redditor quickly snapped a photo, and uploaded it online, with the caption, “Blind?”
There, and on Facebook, it quickly gathered a number of snarky comments, mostly from social media users who pointed out the logical flaw. Commenters mocked the elderly man, and some even went so far as to call him a scammer.
But there was one problem: In both cases, the uploaders were mistaken and the subject of their shaming – the family with the maid and the blind tissue-seller – were maligned.
When we snap-and-shame, are we too quick to judge?
The act of snapping and shaming could take less than a minute, but its effects might last a whole lot longer than that.
While some Twitter users responded to Vivek’s tweet with outrage over the apparent ill-treatment, others pointed out that he might not know the full picture.
“It seems a little presumptuous to speak with such conviction that the maid is disallowed to eat by the family. Maybe she doesn’t like this type of food, she’s not feeling well so she ate at home 1st, or is vegetarian or Muslim?” asked local blogger Xiaxue. “How can you shame people without making sure first?”
When challenged, Vivek insisted that he hadn’t tweeted too rashly: “I was there before they arrived. I overheard their conversations.”
But eventually, the alternatives Xiaxue explored in her response were closer to the truth than Vivek’s caption was.
Wrongful public shaming can cause emotional distress to its victims
Twitter user Meera Semanther, who claimed to be a personal friend of one of the women in Vivek’s photo, chimed in with her friend’s side of the story.
Meera said that her friend Lin, her parents, and their domestic helper Melissa (a pseudonym) were the people in the photo.
Apparently, after running some errands, Lin, her parents and Melissa went for a bite. As Melissa had already eaten, she declined to eat again.
Lin and her parents had not, in fact, prevented Melissa from eating with them.
As a result of Vivek’s tweet and the hundreds of comments, many of them bordering on hate speech and racism, Lin was “distraught and robbed of her peace of mind”.
“I would like to think the tweeter had good intentions,” Meera wrote, expressing that it is understandable that people want to highlight injustices in the world. “But honestly, couldn’t he have just asked?”
She said: “Lin did not deserve to have her privacy invaded like this, and wrongfully maligned publicly.”
Similarly, the blind tissue-seller who was reading a newspaper, who Shinmin Daily News tracked down to interview in Tampines, was left exasperated, and had to clarify that he is not a con man.
Identified as 72-year-old Liu Zhen Xian, Liu explained that he was completely blind in his right eye and visually-impaired in his left eye.
Regarding the controversy over his blindness, Liu produced an ID from the Singapore Association Of The Visually Handicapped that proves he is indeed legally blind.
And although the elderly man has difficulty seeing in low-light situations, reading the papers is a long-time habit of Liu’s. So despite his ailing eyesight, the tissue-seller continues to partake in this indulgence, however limited his vision and challenging the task may be.
When asked about the accusations of him being a con man, Liu lamented to Shinmin Daily News: “I hope that people will not speculate without verification.”
You can delete your tweet or apologise after, but you would have done damage
Many of us rarely think twice when we press the upload button and, unfortunately, the culture of online shaming today is as rampant as it is devastating, with the potential to destroy lives and livelihoods.
For example, think about how the post about the tissue-seller has damaged his reputation, and the reputation of those in similar situations.
After all, it’s no secret that many Singaporeans already dismiss tissue-selling elderly as scammers who take advantage of kindness to make a quick buck. Such posts serve only to reinforce such beliefs.
This might leave Singaporeans wary of elderly tissue-paper sellers, and might leave sellers who genuinely can’t work, and are in need of money, without a sustainable income.
Or, think about how, in Vivek’s case, comments shaming Lin quickly turned ugly.
He has since deleted the original thread, uploaded an apology, and insisted that his tweet was meant to raise awareness, and not to abuse anyone. But remember that even if your intention was to call out what you believe is an injustice, the fact remains that you’ve still engaged in the unkind act of online shaming.
Another reason to think twice before shaming? The possibility of a defamation lawsuit.
“A person who has been maligned online can sue the instigator for defamation,” said criminal lawyer Josephus Tan. “As the one making the claim, the onus is on the person who posted such things to prove his statement true.”
Additionally, Tan pointed out: “In the age of social media, things can go viral extremely quickly. And even if the shamer deletes the original post, it doesn’t stop the damage done. The victim can still sue for defamation.”
That’s why starting a shaming campaign is not a decision to be taken lightly – especially because the Internet doesn’t do take-backs if you change your mind later.
Vivek has deleted his original tweet and issued an apology: “I hope to put this matter to rest now. Please respect the family’s privacy.”
But unfortunately, online shaming is a door that swings only one way: You may have the power to open it, but you may not have the means to close it later.