The Traumatic Impact of Media Humiliation, Misrepresentation and Victim-Shaming

Public shaming and humiliation have a long history as a tactic of social control and punishment. Acknowledging the trauma of its use is not new. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1787 that shaming “is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death.” The use of stocks and pillories on the village green began to fall out of favor in the 1800s, although prisoners were often subjected to public ridicule in other ways. Scientific studies in more recent years have shown that humiliation is the most intense human emotion. Just the fear of being humiliated, let alone the experience, can lead to thoughts of suicide.   

Public Shaming in the Digital Age – “The story will never go away.”* 

Public shaming may not be a new phenomenon. The global reach and eternal presence of the internet and social media is. “Dislikes,” “shares,” and negative comments circle the globe with staggering ease and can reach millions of viewers in mere secondsConcepts such as “alternative facts” and “a post-truth world” are referred to as if they were fact and truth themselves. Commenters frequently abandon civility and respectful exchange of ideas, and Schadenfreude – finding joy in the pain of others  seems to replace it. Trolling seems to be designed to upset people and to drive negative emotion to the point that some people have even committed suicide. 

Once a story has been published, it exists somewhere in the digital universe forever. Explanations and presentation of facts may not change the original narrative, and even sincere apologies do little to rectify character assessments already etched indelibly in the public forum 

Research on humiliation has shown that its painful effects are more long-lasting than that of physical torture. Humiliation is considered “social pain” and registers in the same place in the brain that actual physical pain does. If the experience of public embarrassment and shame can be damaging, even if the story is accurate, when a person’s life experience is misrepresented, the result can be catastrophic.   

Shaming and Humiliation in the Media – “I felt like I was shredded.” 

Christine Marie, PhD, a colleague of mine, recently graduated from Fielding Graduate University with a Doctorate in Media Psychology. Her specialty is a relatively new field in social psychology concerned with the impact media and technology have on human emotions and behaviors. The title for her doctoral research is The Traumatic Impact of Media Humiliation Misrepresentation and Victim-Shaming on Narrative Identity and Well-Being.” Here important novel research proves that such misrepresentation has traumatic effects on people’s sense of self.  

Former members of authoritarian cults and undue influence are especially vulnerable to media exploitation and that is why I have denied hundreds of media requests to film me helping someone. This is frustrating for me as I dearly wish to teach people what I do and show how I do it, but I always must keep my client’s well-being foremost. Mental health professionals have long gotten permission to film for use in training other mental health professionals but protecting the client’s identity is critical. In this digital age of hacking, I am skeptical about even trying to reassure a client to allow this. 

Christine and I met in 2014 at a conference focused on sex trafficking as a cult phenomenon. Christine was a victim of cult-based sex trafficking herself and experienced serious media misrepresentation of her story. We recently reconnected to discuss her dissertation research on the traumatic effects of media humiliation and misrepresentation.   

After leaving her cult situation, Christine spent a decade going through therapy, studying and learning about cult and mind control, and engaging in conversations with supportive family members and friends. In 2013, she agreed to be interviewed by a reputable cable network regarding how to survive a traumatic experience. Christine did not seek out this opportunity. But she did believe that sharing her story would benefit others and give hope and strength to people who had been through similar experiences. Sharing her story might also reframe it into something with positive meaning in her life. 

Survivor stories are significant in the healing process. If an organization claims to provide support to survivors but cannot produce one survivor who is willing to tell their story, that can be a red flag. Such organizations often hide under the claim that using survivor stories is a form of exploitation. It is true that no survivor should ever be pressured or manipulated into telling their story if they are not ready or do not wish to do so. However, Christine explains that it is also exploitative when an organization tells, or even sensationalizes, the story of a survivor, robbing the survivor of the healing opportunity to speak in their own voice, share their truth, reframe their traumatic experience with positive meaning, and expand their network of social support. Survivors should always be given the opportunity to share their own stories first.  

(Both Christine and I are happy to be contacted regarding any organization. If we have no direct information on the group, we can ask our network of professionals and organizations that we know and trust. However, learning how to do your own research and then check with others who are trustworthy is the ideal.) 

Media Misrepresentation – “I’ve been walking around with a doppelganger.” 

What happened next almost undid a decade of hard recovery work. Christine’s story was told as if she were a fictional character, responsible for her victimization. She could not see any resemblance between herself and the character in the story. But the social media mob that had been set loose believed it was real and accurate 

Commenters on her story blamed her for her victimization and piled on shame and loathing. Almost none acknowledged the responsibility of the predators who had taken advantage of her. Christine described how self-blame returned with a vengeance, and she saw no way to escape the humiliating image  her doppelganger – that was so untrue. 

Jumping on the Media Misrepresentation Bandwagon – “You’ve lost your privilege to have a voice in our culture.” 

What causes a person to blame a victim of cult recruitment, authoritarian mind control, or other damaging experience? A few psychological themes that promote victim-blaming are outlined in Christine’s dissertation. 

  • Ideal Victim Myth: a preconceived idea of what a victim “looks” like (i.e., a rape victim should be modestly dressed). If the victim does not conform to the preconceived image, they must have “asked for it.” 
  • Just World Theory: humans want to believe the world is fair and makes sense. An innocent person suffering threatens their worldview. Blaming the victim can restore the sense of justice. 
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: When judging others’ behavior, people tend to give more weight to personal characteristics (i.e., he must be stupid or lazy). But when explaining their behavior, more weight is given to situational factors (i.e., the economy tanked, my boss mistreated me).   

Media Misrepresentation is Victimization – “I thought about killing myself.”  

Media misrepresentation can be intentional or not, but many of the elements involved in agreeing to a media appearance have hints of cult-like control. Legal releases generally give all power to the media company, unless one pays an attorney to fix it. The contributor’s image and story become the exclusive property of the production company, which has total control over editing and the final product. A negative power differential is created between the media company and the unsuspecting contributor. A producer or director may lack empathy or be driven by the old newsroom adage, “if it bleeds, it leads.” There is often no consideration given to the ethics involved in exploiting vulnerable people to make a profit. 

If a survivor’s story is to be part of the healing process, the survivor must be ready and agree with what details are to be shared. Above all, the account must be accurate. Otherwise, the mediacontributor relationship replicates the abuser-victim role and causes further emotional damage.  

The effects of being bullied and shamed on social media have been the subject of a fair amount of research. Christine was surprised to learn that very little research existed on people misrepresented by the media. Her doctoral dissertation dealing with that subject is a significant contribution to the field of media psychology. 

Steps Needed to Address Media Misrepresentation 

  • Media platforms, whether online, in traditional print, or any other form, must take responsibility for the accurate presentation of information and include ethical considerations in their decisions about what information to present and how to present it.  
  • Legislators need increased awareness and understanding of the dangers of mind control and cult recruitment tactics, particularly as they relate to online activity. 
  • Where necessary and appropriate, regulations and legal consequences should be enacted. 
  • Continuing and consistently updated education about the potential dangers of cult recruitment and media misrepresentation should be provided to everyone. 

Reducing and controlling the polarizing effects of negative and inaccurate discourse in the media is of great importance in preventing individuals’ further victimization. It is also critical to the very survival of our democratic way of life. 

Video Interview

*Quotations in section titles were taken from participants in Christine Marie’s research.