Is social media shaming a punishment that fits the crime?

English biochemist and Nobel Prize laureate Sir Richard Timothy 'Tim' Hunt apologized June 10 for causing offence during a speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, after his suggestion that female scientists could not take criticism without crying and that they disrupted lab work, sparked outrage.



In the old days, people would just be tarred and feathered and run out of town.

It seems like a form of clemency compared with the anxiety-inducing, reputation-destroying, job-killing social media backlash we now reserve for those who stray from socially acceptable behaviour.

The latest victim, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt, told a conference last week that women in science labs are “disruptive,” saying, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”

After a conference attendee tweeted his comments, they quickly went viral, prompting hundreds of people around the world to ridicule the prominent scientist, creating the hashtag #distractinglysexy and posting photos of women posing in labs and on research studies.

While Hunt stood behind his remarks, within a week, he was forced to resign from his post as honorary professor at University College London, pull out of the European Research Council and step down from a Royal Society Awards committee. His career as a scientist is over, leaving the twittersphere to argue whether the penalty was just.

British author Jon Ronson wrote a popular book outlining how online shaming is apunishment disproportionate to the crime — one that can, quite literally, ruin your life. But others suggest the millions of eyes on social media do a better job than ever at calling out bigotry.

“We have higher and higher expectations for each other,” said Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen’s University. “We expect ethical behaviour and respect, not just from elected officials, but from our families, friends and colleagues.”

But while Matrix is convinced that the “calling out” of unethical behaviour has been a “net positive,” she’s the first to admit the lynch mob mentality can veer into the very disrespectful conduct it condemns.

“The velocity of digital culture is not to be underestimated. The bandwagon effect that happens when one has caught the attention of the group is dangerous, and lots of people can jump on while we’re still waiting for reporters to verify (the initial report’s) authenticity — which can amplify controversy and misinformation.”

News outlets have long held people to account for comments that crossed the line of social acceptability, but targets were typically political leaders or prominent public servants and the reports were limited by resources.

Now, Twitter and Facebook have put any remotely prominent person, be it a professor, principal or police officer, at risk for having offhand comments come back to haunt them. The reprobation such people now receive isn’t limited to a single day’s front page and can have far more damaging and lasting repercussions.

Whether it was the public relations director who said she was afraid of getting AIDS in Africa, the former Conservative Party strategist who suggested watching child porn should be legal, or the U of T literature professor who refused to teach female authors, online lynch mobs quickly got one fired, the other blacklisted and the last one boycotted.

Prominent British polemicist Richard Dawkins took to Twitter on the weekend to denounce a column in the Guardian that seemed to relish Hunt’s fate.

“A moment to savour”? Really? Please, Guardian, could we just lighten up on the witch-hunts? #ReinstateTimHunt,” Dawkins wrote, calling it the Guardian’s cruel schadenfreude. “SAVOURING a moment of human misery!”

Emily Flynn-Jones, a researcher at York University, says the conversation that emerges online is often polarized and irresponsible and that education is needed to help people appreciate how their words are used.

“It’s a misunderstanding of what freedom of speech is,” she said. While there are well-thought-out responses such as the distractinglysexy hashtag that engage ideas politically, these are often drowned out by witch hunts where emotions take over.

“People often don’t appreciate the resonance and power their words have … but that’s not something that should be inherent or expected from the net. We’re quite excited about the affordances and not the responsibilities that come with being online citizens.

“We have to remind ourselves that the Internet is people, and that we’re reshaping society online. We have to work out what that will look like.”