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I just got back from a podcast interview with AskaLoveGuru.com founder, Dr. Wendy Walsh, the perfect person with whom to discuss today’s scandal. Did you hear that hackers stole and threatened to publish user databases, financial records, and other proprietary information from the cheater website Ashley Madison (“Life is short. Have an affair”)? Over 37 million users could be affected!

News reports claim that hackers demanded that Avid Life Media take the AshleyMadison.com and EstablishedMen.com websites down or more information will be leaked. Public shaming unleashed!

The moment I heard this report I imaged hoards of trembling, middle aged adults being marched naked through the city by a twenty-something in Converse ringing a bell above his head yammering, “Shame … shame … shame” a la Game of Thrones.

How do you feel about this modern-day vigilante justice?

It turns out that the hackers are actually calling out Avid Life Media for reportedly charging members $19 to delete their profile and usage history, yet still maintaining name, address, and purchase details on their server. The threat from hackers calling themselves The Impact Team reads, “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirt bags and deserve no such discretion. Too bad for ALM, you promised secrecy but didn’t deliver.”

Is this justice or another form of cyber bullying? If you’re cheating on the Internet do you deserve to be publically outed? Will hitting Avid Life Media in the pocketbook assure more ethical corporate behavior in the future? Is this David calling out Goliath? What if these hackers were threatening to out KKK or NAMBLA members? Would that change your mind at all?

Public shaming has been on my mind often lately. And honestly I am a bit conflicted. I like to think that most of us manage our impulses from an internal sense of right and wrong. However, I’ve seen some really bad behavior lately from people whose conscience clearly went out for happy hour in the 80s and never came back. For those people it seems public shaming may be the sole source for limiting terrible behavior, cruelty that harms innocent others.

And I have to admit; I wasn’t above threatening public shame on my teenager to encourage her best judgment while she was in high school. My poor child was told on more than one occasion, being from my hometown, that Mom would hear of her public shenanigans should she have any temptations to have them. It mostly seemed to work too.

So here’s my main point. In general, I think using the Internet as a vehicle for public shame is evil. Show me an adult who doesn’t have regrets, and I’ll show you that their gray matter isn’t firing. Who’s right is it to judge?

Furthermore, the position of the person doing public shaming is often far from accurate. A single individual’s perspective is rarely the whole story. What if somebody decides to throw your name in the Ashley Madison list just for giggles? Or what if a hacker decides that you deserve a public lashing for your political views, your religion, or your hobbies? Does being controversial or having enemies justify a breach of your privacy? Or, even worse, extortion?

As a woman who values civil liberties, I abhor the idea of contemptuous computer geniuses being my judge and jury. After all, what gives the self-selected the moral high ground? As founder of GetKidsInternetSafe, I see ample evidence that Internet vigilante mobs are rarely on the side of what is accurate, compassionate, or just. Yet with so few effective Internet regulations, gaps are ripe for vigilante correction.

All in all, what’s most important is what happens in our own homes and communities. It’s about how we treat each other. Tonight we can be assured that many married couples had some interesting conversations about cheating and digital floggings; conversations that we all probably need to have more often, conversations that involve true intimacy, digital privacy, and why we should beware of the dangerous power of the Internets.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

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Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett