Online shaming is frequently in the news these days, typically for the very worst reasons: ruined lives, lost jobs, frothing mobs in a frenzy to steamroll the subject of their dissatisfaction.
But here at last is one case where the mob may have actually done some good: In an interview with ABC Tuesday night, chastened Wall Street bro Martin Shkreli — previously, Internet public enemy No. 1 — announced that he actually wouldn’t jack up the price of an important AIDS drug.
The New York Times reported the markup on Sunday in a blood-boiling piece on Shkreli’s pharmaceutical start-up; the TL;DR is that his company bought Daraprim, a generic medication used to treat infections in AIDS patients — and then raised the price from $13.50/pill to more than $700.
Predictably, and justifiably, the story sparked a thunderclap of outrage on Twitter, where Shkreli maintained an absurdly flippant personal account. In the three days since the Times’s story went online, more than 50,000 people tweeted at Shkreli’s handle — many of them calling him things like “the worst person in America” and “the personification of evil.”
Shkreli was memed and eviscerated on Reddit; at least one Twitter user published Shkreli’s personal contact information, a practice known as doxing. On Pastebin, another vigilante published the e-mails of all his employees. In other words, the online mob did all the worst, most destructive things that we tell people to never do — and it worked, spectacularly, for the greater good.
In an interview with ABC Tuesday night, Shkreli said Daraprim will no longer retail for $750, a direct response to “the anger that was felt by people.” As a result, thousands of people will retain their access to a potentially life-saving medication. (No word as to whether the previously defiant Shkreli actually feels chastened.)
What are we to make of all this? It certainly complicates the already foggy ethics around online shaming and social vigilantes. And maybe it should be complicated, argued Jennifer Jacquet, a professor at New York University. Jacquet has advanced the theory that public shame comes in different flavors: much of it is essentially bullying, yeah, and much of it is disproportionate. But shame is also a form of social control, and it can be used to punish anti-social behaviors.
“We have this instinct that all shame is bad, but that’s way too simplistic,” Jacquet said earlier this month. “I’ve been beating this drum that shame could be used to address large-scale social problems.”
Jacquet is interested in climate change, specifically — but maybe pharmaceutical price-gouging also applies. It’s hard to stand on anti-shaming principles, after all, when lives are literally on the line.
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