Writer and public speaker Monica Lewinsky discusses cyberbullying and social media in virtual event
Kennedy Political Union and Women’s Initiative hosted the conversation with SOC professor
Public speaker, producer, Vanity Fair contributor and women's rights activist Monica Lewinsky spoke about her personal story of overcoming public humiliation and shared advice on the importance of living with compassion at an event, presented by the Kennedy Political Union and the Women’s Initiative, Thursday evening.
The event was moderated by School of Communication professor Molly O’Rourke.
In October, Lewinsky produced and narrated a HBO Max documentary “15 Minutes of Shame,” where she discussed her experiences being attacked by the media as one of the first public victims of cyberbullying.
Lewinsky said she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the harassment she faced in 1998 as a young White House intern, when former President Bill Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury after falsely denying the affair he had with her in a public statement.
“In my instance the isolation came on two tracks: it was both the physical isolation that came from the shaming and the hiding and then there's the emotional isolation that happens and arises from a feeling of frustration of being seen but not being seen for your true self,” Lewinsky said.
In 2005, after receiving a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, she quickly realized that moving on from her past would not be so easy.
“It was in that period where I couldn’t find a job or that somebody wanted to hire me for the wrong reasons that I really started to see a whole other layer around what it was that I had I lost in 1998,” Lewinsky said.
In 2014, Lewinsky decided to turn the page and publish the feature article “Shame and Survival” detailing her story in Vanity Fair.
“So, from the kind of depths of despair, I started to do a lot of personal healing and personal work,” Lewinsky said.
Lewinsky produced “15 Minutes of Shame” in collaboration with director Max Joseph of “Catfish” to spotlight the consequences of “cancel culture” and show real people who have been affected by internet-based attacks on their reputations.
“It's very binary for me,” she said. “You either know what public humiliation is like, or you don't. It is not about how much or how bad someone's humiliation was because it is utterly devastating. It's devastating to see a version of you created and running away from you publicly that is not you. It's not who your family knows, not who your friends know and that has a real enormous emotional cost to it.”
“15 Minutes of Shame” features stories from other victims of public shaming like AU alum Taylor Dumpson, who was the target of a hate crime on her first day in office as Student Government president. Dumpson eventually won her lawsuit in 2019, against the owner of The Daily Stormer, a website that incited online harassment towards her.
“Something we [director Max Joseph] talked about a lot was the fact that Taylor did absolutely nothing wrong. Nothing. There was nothing to misinterpret. She didn’t tell a joke she thought was funny and was offensive or did something privately that became public. She did nothing and she still experienced this kind of shaming,” Lewinsky said. “It has often been worse for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community and then it seeps into other communities.”
According to Lewinsky, digital algorithms increase the opportunity for online harassment to grow.
“Everytime you click on something, it's like buying a newspaper: you're basically signaling to a content company, ‘yeah, I'll order this again,’” she said. “So we are all part of creating the algorithm that is out there. It's not just these bad people who are trying to make money off of us.”
In terms of finding a solution for online harassment, Lewinsky encouraged students to be mindful and move through life with empathy.
“We do have a responsibility there and I think that it's like most every social behavior that we change,” Lewinsky said. “It is rarely a switch that gets flipped on or off. It is something that starts in increments.”