What we’ve learnt from shaming the pharmaceutical CEO

File: Former US president Bill Clinton's autobiography and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky's ''Monica's Story'' are displayed in Beijing. Lewinsky was badly shamed on social media. Photo: REUTERS / GUANG NIU

As a society, we love to judge. It puts us in a position of power and righteousness to say that someone else has erred in a way that we never would have.

Before the advent of the internet, our sanctimonious views generally only rattled around in our little insular communities where the judgement would fester and reinfect us, but didn’t really have anywhere else to go.

Then, along came social media and suddenly, every bigot and superior person suddenly had a voice.

Of course, it would be too much to hope that they used their voices to engage in debates and seek out learning experiences.

No, instead, they are now able to connect with broader communities of people who think like them and really get their message out there.

For now, I’m going to leave the crazies and the racists and the homophobes alone. They’re willing to go and scream their messages of hatred on street corners and at funerals, and now we have to keep trying to drown them out on the internet as well.

It’s the other type of “judger” that I want to discuss today – the seemingly normal person with affiliations to certain causes who, when that hot button is pushed, explodes in a torrent of rage and shaming, using the internet as their platform.

We saw this erupting when Cecil the lion was killed, when Justine Sacco, that American PR person, came to Cape Town and tweeted that she wouldn’t get Aids because she was white, and even, apparently the first of the internet shamed, Monica Lewinsky.

In all those cases, whether rightly so or not, people suffered as a result of their shaming.

We also see it in local stories where people complain of poor service from companies or bad manners from members of the public in the social space, encouraging others to share their stories.

We saw that backfire when Clive Naidoo attempted to shame a police officer for giving him a hard time and instead got schooled for his arrogance. 

I am not a big fan of social media shaming.

For one thing, I know that there are two sides to every story, and these little snippets of outrage rarely consider both.

I also know that the media like to blow things out of all proportion, with the very intention of garnering exactly this sort of outrage.

Since I don’t like my emotions to be dictated to me by other people or the media, I generally allow negative stories to play out without doing my bit to help them go viral.

So this week, I watched the story of Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical company CEO who purchased the manufacturing licence for a drug called pyrimethamine, which is used to fight certain kinds of infections including malaria and toxoplasmosis, and increased the price by 5 000 percent (in some cases).

The drug is a vital part of the treatment of these infections, especially in immunosuppressed people like cancer patients, Aids sufferers and children (talk about a hot button).

The internet shamed Shkreli good. He has been declared the most hated man in America.

He attempted a couple of ill-conceived explanations for why he had increased the price of this essential drug, but no one was really buying it.

After a couple of days of intense online hatred and abuse, Shkreli caved and released a statement that he was reducing the price of the drug to a point that was “more affordable” – although he is yet to disclose what that price will be.

Now, even though I am against internet shaming in general, it’s hard not to be pleased about this outcome.

The shaming worked and a social ill has been righted. And it’s likewise hard to feel sorry for Shkreli, who really got what he deserved for being a rotten human being.

Of course, the end doesn’t justify the means – and while I am pleased about the outcome, I’m not reversing my stance on internet shaming.

But I suppose that the whole social media shaming machine isn’t going away any time soon, so it’s probably worth celebrating its successes, even while I decry its shortcomings.

So, social media, about that Martin Shkreli thing? You did good.



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