The problem with judging people for their sins is that the internet makes it exceedingly easy to invent sins. In February, Buzzfeed News reported on a man filmed by a passing TikTokker, who then uploaded the footage with text suggesting he’d lied to her to get out of a date. That was false—he’d never met her—but it didn’t stop people from ridiculing him as the video racked up over a million views.
Similarly, last year, an Australian woman objected to being made the star of a stunt in which a TikTokker asked her to hold a bouquet, strolled off, and then congratulated himself on performing a random act of kindness. Sixty million hits later, his viewers were praising him for brightening the day of a woman they judged to be old, lonely, and sad. But she objected to that characterization and declared the whole affair “dehumanizing.” She hadn’t asked to have her day interrupted, let alone be thrust into a global spotlight.
And then there are those incapable of even grasping the situation. In 2022, a TikTok channel was called out for surreptitiously filming the homeless with drones. Loved ones with dementia are put on TikTok to be infantilized or have their worst moments gawked at. Parents transform their children into viral stars. Sometimes, those children grow up and call them out for warping their youth.
When people tell us it was harrowing and wrong to be unwillingly cast into the spotlight, we nod and agree. But those responsible typically offer only half-hearted apologies or remain unrepentant, while their millions of views discourage reflection. Often, moral scolding is implicit in the video and explicit in the comments: It is wrong to be homeless. It is gross to be ill. It is pathetic to be unhappy.
To be sure, crass and hateful public figures are worthy of ridicule. And we’ve been using the internet to judge strangers for as long as we’ve had the internet. But the common trait shared by much of the most obnoxious content today is that someone chose to elevate a stranger for no reason beyond their own gratification, attracting attention at a scale unimaginable in the days of relics like Hot or Not and People of Wal-Mart.
At best, these are misguided attempts to juice the poster’s social media presence. At worst, they are pointless cruelty. That cruelty can be addictive, but we can and must resist the urge to gawk at strangers against their will. It should, in fact, be considered rude, insulting, and wrong to have uploaded a stranger against their will. We would not go out into the streets and stir up a mob against a random person. Why are we so comfortable with doing it online?
Much of what we post online is innocent and will remain so. The average Facebook user has 338 friends, while the average number of Instagram followers, according to one estimate, is just 150. You likely use these platforms to follow celebrities and brands, and to interact with friends and family. These are, for most users, insular communities. Vacation photos with friends or a family portrait at Christmas are unlikely to attract trolls and creeps, and even if they do, they are clearly posted in good faith.
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But some platforms, like TikTok and Twitter, are more exposed to the vagaries and cruelties of the wider world. Anything you post on them can wind up in the feed of people who don't follow you. Therefore, anyone can become the day’s punching bag. Does your relative really understand what could happen if you put your interaction with them on TikTok?
Maybe you know better than to post Grandpa on Twitter without thinking it through. We know whether our friends and family like attention and whether they understand social media ecosystems, and with this knowledge we are capable of making informed decisions as to whether and on what platforms we should post them. We do not have the same knowledge of strangers. That can be a reason to not post them, but it can also be an excuse to post them without thinking.
If it came out that an influencer uploaded an interaction with a stranger to a private Facebook page or Discord server solely so their closest friends and family could pick them apart, it would rightly be considered misanthropic. And yet uploading a stranger so millions can mock and over-analyze them is just the business of content. That business needs to change.
It’s exceedingly unlikely we’ll ever eliminate jackassery from the internet, but a social media mishap involving a friend or family member can be resolved with communication.
It is harder for a complete stranger to succeed in that endeavor, especially when “Look at this weirdo I found, please gape at them” is the text or subtext of so many videos and posts by accounts that thrive on content starring the unwilling. Such content must become anathema. Particular thought must be taken before posting an interaction with a stranger, and the consent of a stranger to be posted at all is necessary to retain an internet that is even remotely civil. If someone does post a stranger without their consent, they should be shunned, not rewarded with the attention they crave.
The vast majority of disputes with unruly neighbors are solved by talking to them. Ideally, the law only gets involved when lines of communication break down. The same can be true of digital disputes.
We have privacy laws. If I were to post your name, address, and phone number, you would have legal recourse. And yet the same is not true for your image. Today, at least, you surrender your right to privacy by stepping into public. But outdated privacy laws are catching up to the abuses of government and tech, and the issues raised by social media virality could be next.
Still, a blanket law against posting strangers without their consent would be draconian and unworkable. There are too many variables, too many circumstances, and simply too many cases. However, whole generations who have been online since birth—sometimes unwillingly—could grow up to be more sensitive to the downsides of posting without permission, prompting a normative shift.
More specific laws are already evolving to handle some scenarios raised by nonconsensual virality, specifically as it applies to children. Irina Raicu of Santa Clara University’s Internet Ethics Program points out that a recent French law entitles child influencers to demand that platforms scrub all trace of them once they turn 16. The YouTube career their parents create for them—or force on them—need not be what defines them as adults. The United States is considering a similar law; a woman who testified to a House committee said the details of her first period were turned into content.
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Another law being considered in France would make parents responsible for their children’s privacy rights. Le Monde cites, as an example of fame-seeking behavior that France is hoping to discourage, TikTokkers scaring their children by pretending to call the police on them, and an Instagrammer who smeared chocolate on her 4-year-old and convinced them they were covered in feces. We will eventually wonder how parents were able to get away with this at all.
So those who cannot consent are starting to be protected. But what about those who could consent, but don’t? And what if, as some unwillingly viral subjects have found, reaching out and asking for posts to be removed is met with silence or rejection?
In reality we already practice social media consent; it is not unusual to ask a friend if they’re alright with having a picture posted to Instagram, even though the face they make as they try to cram an unusually large sandwich into their mouth is not a flattering one. And yet we continually fail to extend this courtesy to strangers, either because we think nothing of it or because it is our job to go viral at all costs.
Some of this, as Raicu points out, can be blamed on the platforms we use, which encourage hair triggers. “There are ways in which the design choices behind many websites make it harder for all of us to think about consent,” Raicu wrote in an email. She points to the sheer ease of posting and the fact that norms around social media consent have not solidified. But she notes that platforms could “introduce some friction” in the form of, essentially, reminders that other people are human before you hit Post.
Future platforms could work to curtail shaming, either out of moral compulsion or legal necessity. Much as you can report harassment to social media platforms, posts that have elevated you to infamy against your will should be fair targets.
Lines have been drawn before. YouTube banned dangerous pranks and challenges after people were hurt and complaints mounted. TikTok is trying to tweak its algorithm in response to growing concerns that young users are awash in content encouraging suicide and incel ideology. Content made from those unable or unwilling to consent is a broad category that cannot be wiped out with algorithmic tweaks, but the damage is still happening, and we have the power to collectively declare that some forms of content are unacceptable and must no longer be tolerated.
Perhaps, given the increasing universality of social media usage—83 percent of Gen Z uses TikTok—platform-embedded tools could establish consent. Before posting a video of someone, an influencer could ask their username and send them a simple, stock contract granting them permission to post. Again, this need not apply to every random photo of friends. It could be optional, or it might apply only when an account reaches a certain threshold of followers. But a lack of permission could give a user cause when they cite unwanted virality and negative attention when asking for a post to be removed.
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But most of the work will fall to people. It's difficult enough to remember that the man being a bit rude in the grocery store line is a fallible human being with hopes and dreams; it can be almost impossible to remind yourself of that when viewing a contextless clip of someone halfway across the hemisphere. The internet is capable of connecting us to tremendous numbers of people, even as it makes us forget that they are human like us.
An influencer comfortable with filming themselves for thousands of viewers should be comfortable with approaching a stranger and saying, “Would you mind appearing in a video I’m making? I’m going to post it on this platform, and I have this many followers. Take a minute to check me out.” Some already do, and surely there are people who would be happy to receive a free bouquet in exchange for appearing in a TikTokker’s silly stunt. But a no should be taken as a no, just as it should in any other scenario involving consent.
It’s all too easy to skip this step today. People who speak out when they feel harmed by what an influencer did with their image receive only a tiny fraction of the attention that the original posts featuring them got. But when an influencer is repeatedly called out for exploiting strangers—or when their exploitation is obvious, such as when they prey on the homeless—they should be frozen out of the social media ecosystem, not rewarded with attention and profit.
In the future, how will we be able to see such casual cruelty as anything but unethical? Maybe stories of regret are a sign of what’s to come. Brianna Wu, one of the victims of GamerGate, says she has fielded over 100 apologies, often from people who were at their lowest and saw her as an easy outlet for their emotions. But we generally don’t take our frustrations out on people on the street; understanding that people deserve to be protected from unsolicited online fame and malice is the next logical step.
We no longer parade people through villages on a cart or lock them in pillories in the town square to shame them, as was done in centuries past. We did not stop enforcing laws and norms, but we recognized that humiliation and ostracization are harsh, counterproductive tools. Eventually, we will make that realization about the strangers we parade across the internet.