On the screen, individuals spewed vitriol; loudly belittling others, calling them stupid, fat, terrorists, telling them to kill themselves. The moments were ugly, and as the cameras rolled, bystanders stepped in and stood up for the strangers victimized in front of them.
The bullies and the victims were actors, filmed for a PSA unveiled by Monica Lewinsky earlier this month in partnership with ad agency BBDO New York and Dini von Mueffling Communications. But the bystanders who intervened all were real New Yorkers, she told a full house Tuesday at the Iowa Memorial Union’s Main Lounge in Iowa City. And if we won’t sit idly by when people are bullied in real life, we shouldn’t stand for online bullying either, she said.
Lewinsky titled her talk “The Price of Shame” and made an impassioned case for countering the “compassion deficit or empathy crisis” online she said is plaguing modern society.
She spoke from her own experiences from 20 years ago, when former President Bill Clinton admitted to having a relationship with her while she was a White House intern in 1995 and 1996. When the affair surfaced, it was 1998. She was 24.
“If the investigation had happened a few years earlier, it would have been against a much slower media landscape,” she said.
Instead, the story broke online first. Lewinsky soon learned what it meant to “go viral,” before that phrase was common. Transcripts of 20 hours of taped conversations between her and then-friend Linda Tripp were available for anyone to read. Though there was no Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at the time, comment sections and email existed. The hate flowed in, “a virtual stone-throwing mob,” who “slut-shamed, fat-shamed, objectified and vilified” her.
“I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale, almost instantaneously,” she said.
She recalled her parents insisting she shower with the door open, afraid of what she might do if left alone.
“There were moments for me when suicide seemed like the only way to silence the ridicule,” she said.
She said she knows she made mistakes and “not a day goes by I don’t regret it.” For years after the investigation, she stayed silent and out of the public eye. But she decided to speak up for the first time, in a 2014 article in Vanity Fair, in part to help others who have faced cyberbullying.
“Anyone suffering from pain or public humiliation needs to know you can survive it,” she said.
She called on audience members to become “upstanders” instead of apathetic bystanders, to post supportive comments or report abuse when they see it online.
In honor of October as Bullying Prevention month, she has helped develop supportive anti-bullying emojis with Snaps Media, bright and colorful clasped hands inside hearts paired with the hashtag #BeStrong. They can be downloaded free.
“What we need is a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a blood sport needs to stop,” she said.
As the crowd streamed out of the Memorial Union, one young man enthusiastically told a friend he was going to download the emojis when he got home.
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