HBO’s ‘15 Minutes of Shame’ Smartly Unpacks Our Culture of Public Shaming

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Laura Krolczyk was publicly shamed for making some indelicate comments about Trump supporters on her Facebook page. She is featured in new HBO documentary, '15 Minutes of Shame'. (Courtesy of HBO Max)

In 2021, how you perceive online shaming campaigns often has a great deal to do with your political leanings. In the broadest of terms, if you fall on the right, it’s called “cancel culture”—a merciless, life-ruining takedown of fallible human beings. On the left, it’s called “consequence culture”—wrongdoers being held accountable for their own awful behavior. Now, a new documentary called 15 Minutes of Shame—executive produced by Monica Lewinsky and directed by Max Joseph—is here to fill out the space in between. And it is a thoroughly enlightening, if anxiety-inducing, watch.

Lewinsky’s involvement here is key. In the film’s introduction, she refers to herself as “Patient Zero of having a reputation completely destroyed, worldwide, because of the internet.” And while that is an accurate assessment, 15 Minutes is not here to tell you the unfettered power of the internet is an exclusively bad thing. If anything, its end goal is to insert into these narratives the thing that is so often missing on the internet: humanity in all of its shades of gray.

Like Jon Ronson’s excellent 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, 15 Minutes focuses not on humiliated celebrities, but rather a handful of everyday people whose lives have been decimated by their online characterizations. There’s Matt Colvin, the guy who bought up 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer at the start of the pandemic. There’s Emmanuel Cafferty, a Latino employee of San Diego Gas and Electric who lost his job after a member of the public accused him of making a white power hand gesture. And there’s Laura Krolczyk, who, in a fit of frustration with COVID deniers, wrote on her Facebook page: “Trump supporters need to pledge to give up their ventilators for someone else.”

The documentary allows each of these figures some space to explain themselves, but the point is not to vindicate them. The point is to take a deep dive into the cultural, social and psychological drivers behind internet take-downs. And it’s in those moments that 15 Minutes does its most interesting work.

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The documentary sketches a fascinating “brief history of public shaming,” starting at the dawn of civilization, running through the introduction of the pillory, and then onto the invention of the printing press, tabloids and, finally, the internet. At one point, while talking about punishments doled out in town squares hundreds of years ago, cultural historian Dr. Tiffany Watt says: “This is a person who is suffering because they’ve done something wrong. And we have to punish them in order to tell everyone else not to do the same thing.” It’s clear in that moment the impulse to publicly shame is a thread that’s been present throughout history, and that the internet is merely the latest conduit for it.

15 Minutes excels when discussing the psychology behind internet pile-ons. UCSF neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Helen Weng explains why it’s harder for our brains to recognize people as full humans when we can’t see their faces and body language. Watt shares that one study of soccer fans found they felt a greater sense of joy from seeing rival teams fail than they did from seeing their own teams score. “What that showed,” Watt notes, “is that we enjoy seeing other people fail more than we enjoy winning, ourselves.” Being divided into “rival tribes,” Watt adds, “is a very, very dangerous place for a society to be in.”

The cultural commentators throughout 15 Minutes of Shame offer up similarly thought-provoking analysis. Segments with Roxane Gay perfectly encapsulate the struggles of online discourse. On one hand, Gay talks about why fighting back online is so necessary. “People are so unseen and so unheard and they’ve been so unrepresented for so long, and you see something done about it. That is incredibly satisfying.” On the other hand, Gay acknowledges the deep flaws of the format. “People love to say ... ‘I am not responsible for dehumanizing the person, the internet is,’” she notes. “The internet is there, but we are responsible for the ways in which we dehumanize each other.”

15 Minutes also takes the time to find out how tech companies are complicit in that dehumanization. Technology ethicist Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, explains: “One NYU study found that for every word of moral outrage—negative human emotions—that you added to a tweet ... it increased the retweet rate by 13%.” Harris goes on to compare Twitter’s algorithm to rubbernecking. Its desire, he notes, is to feed us “car crash after car crash after car crash.”

Ultimately, 15 Minutes of Shame is a documentary that, on the surface, seeks to capture our global online culture at this time and in this place. But it also contextualizes how we got here and, importantly, makes some suggestions as to how we can get better at handling it.

Lewinsky bookends the film with a single proposition: “Imagine waking up one morning with the whole world suddenly knowing your name.” But, at the end of the 86-minute film, she adds a question. “What kind of world do you want that to be?” You’ll have a much better idea after watching 15 Minutes of Shame.

‘15 Minutes of Shame’ begins streaming Thursday, Oct. 7, on HBO Max. Details here.