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Why does social media so often go from sharing to shaming?

Why are we so quick to shame people on social media?
Why are we so quick to shame people on social media?
Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

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Open up your favorite social media site on just about any given day and here's what you'll find: news, cute animal videos, photos of last night's dinner... and someone being pilloried for an errant tweet.

Author Jon Ronson outlines the problem in a powerful piece published in this weekend's New York Times magazine.

But it's not hard to find examples just from the last few days. Actress Uma Thurman was shamed over her appearance at a red carpet event, and director Kevin Smith was ridiculed for posting a photo of himself hugging and grieving for his dying dog.

So what is wrong with people? Why do so many express so much glee in taking people down whether they deserve it or not?

Aaron Mishara, professor of clinical psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, explains public shaming can actually be rewarding on a psychological and chemical level.

"There is a purpose to this public shaming," Mishara says. "We make a downward comparison with others less fortunate than ourselves, those outside our social group to protect our self-esteem. That makes us feel somewhat better and offers a sense of reassurance." 

And while public shaming is nothing new, social media has made it extremely easy to spread.

As The Emily Post Institute's Lizzie Post explains, "It used to be just maybe in your social circle or maybe just to the few people in your town that this social shaming would happen, and now we gossip globally."

Posting something on a social media platform, offensive or not, makes it "public and permanent," Post adds. "It's going to follow you for as long as someone can research it."

But just as public shaming is "hard-wired" into us, Mishara says, so is empathy. And that can offer a potential solution. Engaging in our empathetic side and taking the time to see things from the other person's perspective, "sort of balances this sort of other attacking side."

Post recommends that when you get the urge to public shame online, "it's always good for us to remember, 'Boy, I'm not perfect, I would hate for all my biggest mistakes to be out there publicly and have everyone constantly bringing them back up.'"

Another good thing to remember, Post says: "Don't post anything [on social media] that you wouldn't post in your town square for everyone to see."