Home » Blogs » Leveraging Adversity » Virtual Mobs, Microagressions, and The Growth of Social Shaming

Virtual Mobs, Microagressions, and The Growth of Social Shaming

shame photo


When the Rosetta spacecraft successfully completed its mission, the expectation was wild applause and accolades for the team of British scientists involved. Instead, however, due to a perceived egregious act by one of the British scientists, there was a much different public reaction.


During a video interview with international news journal Nature, one of the British scientists was caught wearing a shirt featuring leather-bound women. Almost instantly, the hashtag #ShirtStorm appeared in social media, people began voicing their outrage, and the discussion shifted from a 10-year mission to a debate about the inclusion of women in science, technology, engineering and math fields – all within a matter of minutes.


This unexpected twist in public reaction, however, also caught the attention of Jason Manning, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University. Partnering with California State University’s Bradley Campbell, Manning began exploring the rather explosive growth of what they call “microaggression” websites all over the US.


What Manning and Campbell found was that, in recent years, it has become increasingly common for university students to create online forums for describing words and deeds they perceive as offensive and indicative of sexism, racism, or other prejudice (Manning et al., 2015). In their paper Microaggression and Moral Cultures, Manning and Campbell explore the many factors that cause relatively minor slights to be treated as serious matters worthy of public complaint, and feverish hashtag activism.


One explanation, Manning and Campbell suggest is that insults and slights are more offensive in settings where people are relatively equal and diverse to begin with. It is in these societies that insulting any group – even if they are not your own – is more likely to be considered offensive by everyone. The result is heightened attention to any perceived insults – even those that are unintentional (Manning et al., 2015).


“Social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant. A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure” (Manning, 2015).


While the British scientist gave a tearful apology days after the social media storm and that controversy was over relatively quickly, according to Manning, the consequences of these public shamings are typically more violent and hurtful. He explains, “Modern media provides new ways of harming others and tarnishing their reputations. People can now be more easily humiliated by publicly exposing their private affairs, such as posting nude pictures or other sensitive information online. Such exposure might even drive someone to suicide” (Manning, 2015).


“New media technology, which gives any person the ability to bring their grievances before a crowd of millions, seems to encourage the public airing of grievances in this way” (Manning, 2015).


It is in the age of social media and hyper-reactivity online, that conflicts increasingly make their way online, and for many people – especially new mothers – hit very close to home.


After witnessing the public shaming of actress Reese Witherspoon for feeding her toddler cinnamon buns for breakfast, model Coco Rocho for giving her baby formula, and former pop star Jessica Simpson for posting a photo of her 5-year-old daughter in a mermaid costume some felt was too revealing, Sarah Clark, of the University of Michigan decided to conduct a poll.


Gathering a national sample of 475 mothers with at least one child between ages 0-5 asked a variety of questions, such as, whether they had been criticized about their parenting, what the topics of criticism were, and who were the offenders.


The results were revealing. Six in 10 mothers of children ages 0-5 said they had been criticized about parenting, on everything from discipline to breast feeding. Discipline, however, was the most frequent topic of criticism, reported by 70 percent of mothers who felt shamed. Other areas of concern were diet and nutrition (52 percent), sleep (46 percent), breast- vs. bottle-feeding (39 percent), safety (20 percent), and child-care (16 percent) (Clark et al., 2017).


Clark noted that the subject of discipline is especially rife with opposing views and cultural differences – spanking versus time-outs, for instance – or strict adherence to rules instead of allowing space for a child to explore. Moreover, new information about child health and safety also often challenges long-held parenting practices that other family members used themselves or have grown up with (Clark et al., 2017).


“Family members should respect that mothers of young children may have more updated information about child health and safety, and ‘what we used to do’ may no longer be the best advice” (Clark, 2017).


So, who were the most frequent offenders? Sadly, a mother’s own parents. Thirty-seven percent of poll respondents have felt second guessed by their mother or father (Clark et al., 2017).


That tally was followed by a spouse or their child’s other parent (36 percent) and in-laws (31 percent.) Interestingly, mothers reported far less criticism from friends, other mothers they encounter in public, social media commenters, their child’s doctor and child-care provider (Clark et al., 2017).


And as to how this shaming affects new mothers, 42 percent said the criticism has made them feel unsure about their parenting choices, 62 percent said they get a lot of unhelpful advice from other people, 56 percent said they get too much blame and not enough credit for their children’s behavior, and half of those surveyed said they simply avoid people who are too critical (Clark et al., 2017). Clark explains, “Mothers can get overwhelmed by so many conflicting views on the ‘best’’ way to raise a child. Unsolicited advice – especially from the people closest to her child – can be perceived as meaning she’s not doing a good job as a mother. That can be hurtful” (Clark, 2017).


“It’s unfortunate when a mother feels criticized to the point where she limits the amount of time she and her child will spend with a family member or friend” (Clark, 2017).


For many women – especially on the topic of breastfeeding – there is no winning. If they breastfeed in public, they are shamed, and if they don’t breastfeed at all – and choose a formula – they are also shamed.


Looking to identify the emotional and practical experiences of mothers who exclusively breast feed, exclusively formula feed, or use a combination of both, researchers from the University of Liverpool’s Infant Feeding Group in the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, led by Dr. Jo Harrold, conducted a series of studies.


The studies, which were published in the Journal of Maternal and Child Nutrition, included the experiences of more than 1600 mothers with infants up to 26 weeks-of-age. All the mothers were asked to fill out an online survey providing answers that reflected both their emotional and practical experiences of infant feeding. To identify differences in experiences, the mothers were also asked how they currently fed their baby and how they had planned to feed their baby during pregnancy.


In the overall sample of formula feeding mothers 67% reported feeling guilty, 68% felt stigmatized, and 76% felt the need to defend their feeding choice. Mothers who initiated exclusive breastfeeding but stopped and mothers who intended to exclusively breastfeed during pregnancy were at a much higher risk of experiencing guilt (Fallon et al., 2016).


For breastfeeding mothers, negative emotional experiences did not occur as frequently but were still present, particularly for those who supplemented breastfeeding with formula. Interestingly, family members and breastfeeding in public appeared to be the primary external source of these emotions. Returning to work was also a common concern raised by mothers who were exclusively breastfeeding (Fallon et al., 2016).


Further analysis of the responses from both breastfeeding and formula feeding women revealed that guilt and dissatisfaction was directly associated with how they chose to feed their babies, yet these emotional experiences were far more common in those supplementing or substituting with formula (Fallon et al., 2016).


Study researchers Sophia Komninou, explained, “Women who breastfeed feel stressed about neglecting the rest of the family and other obligations, whereas women who do not breastfeed feel a sense of guilt about feeding their child something sub-optimal. They also feel shame about having to explain to others why they are not breastfeeding which leads to them feeling like they are failing to achieve the socially constructed status of the ‘good mother’” (Komninou, 2016).


“The study demonstrates a link between current breastfeeding promotion strategies and the emotional state of mothers. The ‘breast is best’ message has, in many cases, done more harm than good and we need to be very careful of the use of words in future breastfeeding promotion campaigns” (Fallon, 2016).


While social media gives us ample opportunity to connect with others, it also opens the doorway to the harsh criticism of others, for any perceived slights – even those that are unintended. And these criticisms can lead to a social media shaming mob, hashtag fever, and as we saw in the case of Rosetta, unexpected public reactions. Yet social media also allows access by those closest to us to judge our every behavior and offer criticism and unsolicited advice about even the most private affairs, such as how we feed and raise our children. In either case, the result is an inordinate amount of shame.

Virtual Mobs, Microagressions, and The Growth of Social Shaming

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2019). Virtual Mobs, Microagressions, and The Growth of Social Shaming. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jun 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.