Does 'distance shaming' help or hurt the coronavirus fight?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus have been in place in various forms across the U.S. for nearly two months. Such public health measures have led to the emergence of a new social phenomenon: harsh public criticism of people who are perceived as not following the rules.

While shaming has been a feature of online discourse for many years, it has become something of a national pastime since the early days of the outbreak. Whether it’s Gen Z-ers on spring break, baby boomers being chided by their children or celebrities spotted without masks, just about every demographic has been the target of public disapproval.

Social media platforms are filled with posts finger-pointing at so-called #Covidiots for behavior seen as violating safety rules. Some police departments have been flooded with calls about breaches of safety protocols.

Why there’s debate

The motivation behind distance shaming is pretty simple to understand. The coronavirus poses a threat to everyone, and safety measures like social distancing and masks are only effective if followed by society at large. Flouting these rules means making others less safe and can be perceived as an insult to those who have made major personal sacrifices for the greater good. Anyone who acts in that way deserves to be shamed, some argue.

Social pressure can be an effective way to get people who may not be convinced by health warnings to fall in line, experts say. Mitigation methods can be seen as a new form of social etiquette that needs to be enforced by the public to become fully engrained, some argue.

Others say shaming is counterproductive. Being publicly criticized can cause people to feel attacked and actually become more committed to their behavior. The impulse to shame others for minor indiscretions may be a way of exerting a measure of control at a time when so much is uncertain and trust in leaders is low. While it may be momentarily cathartic, shaming others is not a healthy form of self care.

Online shaming can be emotionally damaging, especially in small towns where everyone knows each other. Involving the police can be especially problematic because of an imbalance in how police enforce distancing guidelines in various neighborhoods.

Many instances of shaming are aimed at people who are in fact following health guidelines. Several viral photos that appeared to show packed beaches or parks were taken from angles that make them seem more crowded than they really were.


Shaming is helpful

Shaming forces people to consider their impact on others

“Shaming is most effective when it is addressing collective problems, meaning we are each a potential victim of that bad behavior. It’s hard to imagine a bigger and more collective problem than a global pandemic that’s killing people every day, all over the globe.” — Jennifer Jacquet, Gen

People might forgo risky behavior to avoid being shamed

“If the fear of getting infected isn’t powerful enough, the possibility of having your photo taken and shared publicly is one more reason to stay home — or resist the urge to buy all the toilet paper and cans of soup.” — Jennifer Brown, Colorado Sun

Shaming helps establish important social norms

“The judgement we are feeling when we are in public now, whether directed at others or ourselves, is nothing more than the necessary process of a new etiquette establishing itself. … While it can be intimidating, trying to navigate the new system of manners and protocols, it’s ultimately crucial to making social distancing work. So bring on the shame.” — Calum Marsh, National Post (Canada)

Shame can be effective when aimed at decision makers, not individuals

“Instead of posting a picture of a grocery store clerk without a mask, tweet at the company’s chief executive and urge him or her to make sure the employees are safe. Instead of railing at the kids on the beach, use social media to ask mayors and governors why the beaches are still open.” — Jennifer Weiner, New York Times

Shaming is harmful

Shaming only makes things worse

“By shaming people, we’re actually encouraging the opposite. When people feel shamed, they tend to get very defensive, they tend to blame other people, they’re disinclined to take responsibility, and they’re not any more likely to change their behaviour.” — Psychologist June Tangney to the Guardian

Don’t blame individuals for the failures our leaders

“Some of them, maybe even most of them, are misguided manifestations of fear and confusion in the face of a very real vacuum of authority. Because we know so little — and have so little faith in so many of our leaders — we are scrambling to assemble some sense of order in our lives. And a lot of times, that means leveling judgment on others as we desperately try to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing, even as the ‘right’ thing often remains unclear.” — Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed News

Shaming is a harmful coping mechanism

“It would be the same if someone feels better by having five drinks after work. It might make them feel better for a while, but it’s maladaptive. It’s not sustainable. But they feel justified, because in their mind they’re going to save everyone on the block.” — Mental health counselor Ann Witt to the Tampa Bay Times

People of color face disproportionate harm from public criticism

“When there’s a mandate to snitch or to shame, that’s going to disproportionately affect black people. When you call the police on a group of black people, you are threatening their lives.” — Writer Damon Young to the New York Times

Coercion isn’t an effective way to get people to buy in

“In general there’s a concern that that shaming approach erodes public trust and widespread cooperation. People will comply out of a sense of fear of getting caught or fear of social approbation or judgment, but you may be sacrificing long-term cooperation by doing that.” — Health law expert Lindsay Wiley to the Atlantic

A photo may not give a full picture of the measure people are taking to stay safe

“Be skeptical of the photo or video posted to social media purporting to be evidence of widespread social distancing violations, because it may not be showing what you think it is. It might just be a bunch of responsible people trying to make the best of a bad situation.” — Aaron Gordon, Vice

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images