For many, the thought of being publicly humiliated is their worst nightmare. Between the proliferation of unscripted TV shows, true crime mania, citizen content makers, online aggression, and cancel culture, the possibility to be misrepresented and shamed in the media seems to be lurking in the shadows like the body snatchers. I should know. I was once a survivor of a sensational true crime, and unsurprisingly, the media came knocking. The opportunity seemed so perfect. The production company represented that my story would be told on a reputable network as part of a series highlighting the “power of the human spirit to overcome crushing psychological adversity,” portrayed in a way I would be “100% comfortable with.” Finally, I could use my experience to help others.
Well, I was deceived. My story as a survivor of human trafficking was instead twisted to fit into a series about people who were “manipulated into committing horrific crimes.” Sound bites were spliced together to create entire sentences I did not say, making me look brainless and culpable. An actor unrelated to my survival story showed up on camera portrayed as a witness, blaming me for the crimes against me. He was even coached to use degrading words about me. I was mortified. I was in shock. This defaming, humiliating misrepresentation of my character aired on cable networks around the world and was then amplified by slut-shaming, victim-blaming social media attacks against me. I wanted to die.
I soon learned that I was not alone. Pop culture is spilling its guts with examples of people whose reputations have been bloodied by media misrepresentation, public humiliation, or online shaming, showcasing the destruction that public shaming can do to a person’s social well-being, mental health, and ability to survive financially. Langlois and Slane (2017) pointed out that today a person’s socioeconomic worth “increasingly hinges on the kind of image of oneself as a subject that circulates online, and on the kind of attention it receives from others” (p. 121). The loss of income can lead to other problems from housing instability to loss of health care to business closure.
This experience is not just costly and socially painful, it’s traumatic. Trauma is defined as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning” (https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma). While the impact of media humiliation and misrepresentation (MHM) might meet that definition of trauma, when it comes to a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), things get a little murky.
The DSM-5 criteria for PTSD begin with Criterion A, which requires “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” through:
- Directly experiencing it.
- Witnessing it happen to others.
- Learning that it happened to someone close.
- Experiencing repeated exposure to aversive details of the traumatic events.
This is followed by a note: “Criterion A4 does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or picture, unless this exposure is work related” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 271).
In my case, I was clearly having the symptoms of PTSD after my mortifying media experience which included a barrage of online attacks. However, I was not “exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” in the classic sense, and my repeated exposures to humiliating (hence traumatizing) media content were not work related, as required by the note. One psychologist insisted a diagnosis of PTSD could not be applied to a media experience. I struggled to make sense of this.
In my search for answers, I learned about a PhD program in Media Psychology at Fielding Graduate University. From the moment I was accepted, I knew my dissertation topic would explore the intersection of media and trauma. I used a mixed-methods hermeneutic phenomenology approach because it considers the researchers’ subjective experiences and biases to be strengths that should be disclosed and embraced. My story enriched my research. I explored the nature of the lived experience of MHM through interviews, and sure enough, participants described a mountain of posttraumatic stress symptoms. This confirmed my theory that media-based trauma was a thing and could be a potential catalyst for PTSD. Bolstering this, my survey participants indicated that their media experience was traumatic on two different trauma scales which were strongly correlated.
When I examined the patterns of those who had been publicly shamed in the media, media-based trauma appeared to add extra complications to PTSD. With PTSD, the traumatic event is in the past. The survivor can work to heal from it in the present. With a media-based trauma, the traumatic event is in the past, but due to the permanent nature of the digital footprint and the ever-recycling iterations of the humiliating content, the wounds are in the past, the present and most likely, the future.
Other unique aspects of MHM that emerged include feeling as if your life narrative has been hijacked, and you are powerless to correct the story. You can be stigmatized to the point of feeling silenced and radioactive. Suicidal ideation is not uncommon (Muir et al., 2021). When you need the most support, people ghost you, avoid you, and fear publicly defending you. Family and friends are at risk of being targeted. You mourn the loss of your good reputation, the death of your life legacy, the derailing of your life purpose, hopes, and dreams. You can experience identity annihilation and a disintegrated sense of self, a disenfranchised form of grief that does not invite public support or group hugs (Marie, 2020). You’re like the walking dead.
Although sharing my survivor story in the media did not allow me the opportunity to use my experience to help others, my doctoral research certainly did. My deep dive into media misrepresentation, public shaming, narrative identity, and well-being not only helped me produce a dissertation, but it also helped me repurpose my mortifying experience. Now I have the tools to educate society about the severity of this unique form of trauma, hopefully, to help prevent these devastating media experiences from happening to others.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Publishing.
Langlois, G., & Slane, A. (2017). Economies of reputation: The case of revenge porn. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 14, 120–138. https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2016.1273534
Marie, C. (2020). The traumatic impact of media humiliation, misrepresentation and victim-shaming on narrative identity and well-being [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.
Muir, S. R., Roberts, L. D., & Sheridan, L. P. (2021). The portrayal of online shaming in contemporary online news media: A media framing analysis. Computers in Human Behavior Reports, 3, 100051. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chbr.2020.100051
(Co-Editors’ Note: Christine Marie received the 2021 Outstanding Student Dissertation Award from the APA Society for Media Psychology & Technology)