In June 2020, just days after the murder of George Floyd, a photo of Emmanuel Cafferty started to circulate on Twitter. It featured a clear shot of Cafferty's hand, which appeared to be forming a white supremacist hand signal, as he drove his San Diego Gas & Electric Truck. You might recall seeing the image recycled on your feed a few times, each post featuring several angry comments. Or perhaps you saw the headlines where Cafferty lost his job for the seemingly racist gesture. But as it turns out, the media got the story wrong. And now, in HBO Max's eye-opening documentary, 15 Minutes of Shame, Cafferty is sharing his side of the story.

It's just one of many cases of online public shaming, but in this sobering film, we get a deeper look at four people who were either disproportionately shamed for their mistakes or cyber-harassed by racist trolls. Directed by Max Joseph (Catfish) and executive produced by Monica Lewinsky, who calls herself "patient zero" of having her reputation destroyed by the internet, 15 Minutes of Shame also takes a deep dive into the history of cancel culture, featuring interviews with social media experts, psychologists, authors and professors.

For some, the 90-minute film may feel like a sort of cop out for those who've made mistakes and are seeking redemption—but that's certainly not the goal here. Rather, it carefully examines why society revels in public humiliation and, more importantly, tries to understand how the world got to this point. It also does a phenomenal job of humanizing those who've been "canceled," making sure to differentiate their actions from who they are. As author Jon Ronson describes it, people tend to "rid the story of nuance and context, treating someone as this monolithic aspect of their personality."

As for how this phenomenon became so popular, the film traces its origins all the way back to the pillory (a wooden tool that was used to imprison offenders while being exposed to public abuse). But it was after the invention of the printing press and the introduction of tabloid culture when public shaming really blew up. Cultural historian Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith offers some fascinating insight about why this has been the case, explaining that it's all due to "schadenfreude," a term for the pleasure people get from seeing someone else's misfortune.

"Studies show dopamine is released when we see a transgressor being punished," Smith says in the film. "People talk a lot about moral outrage, they talk about injustice. What they're not really talking about is the pleasure."

Professor and activist Loretta J. Ross also speaks to this, noting that there's a tinge of sadism in call out culture. As she recalled doxxing certain offenders in the past, she said, "I cringe thinking about how much satisfaction I got out of that."

15 Minutes of Shame also acknowledges the good side of public shaming, saying that it can be used for good when it comes to giving marginalized groups a voice, fighting injustice and calling out big corporations. But over time, these hashtag movements have turned into opportunities to call out normal people for making even relatively small mistakes. Ross says, "Public shaming of people is never effective. It doesn't really take into account the humanity of the person being called out, it doesn't set up any kind of opportunity to actually achieve accountability. It's a way of trying to hold people accountable, theoretically, but doing it in such a publicly shaming way that you actually achieve another goal, and that is to blow up somebody else's life."

It's enough to make anyone stop and think twice before canceling someone on their feed, but perhaps the most memorable takeaway comes from Dr. Mary Aiken, who manages to sum up the entire movie's message in her statement. While discussing the internet's role in decreasing levels of empathy, she said, "The most important thing is that we remember what it is to be human. If, however, we see the rise of narcissists, the rise of sadists, the rise of those who have no empathy, then we are going to live in a very ugly society going forward."

Perhaps Lewinsky and Joseph's documentary can help steer us back in the right direction.

Purewow Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

15 Minutes of Shame is incredibly thorough and nuanced, bringing light to important truths that will make any social media user think twice before they shame someone on the internet.

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