Monica Lewinsky and the Origins of Cyberbullying

Monica Lewinsky presenting at TED (photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

We currently live in a world where almost everything is documented, permanent and open to the public. The invention of the internet and the widespread use of social media has changed how news is covered, circulated and viewed. The Monica Lewinsky scandal proliferated on the cusp of the digital media revolution when territory was uncharted and anything could happen. In 1998, President Bill Clinton was reportedly having an ongoing affair with Lewinsky, a then 22-year-old woman with an internship position at the White House. This shocking event caused a massive ripple effect in the news, creating a turning point in the media industry. Journalists saw a direct opportunity to make easy profits through exposure of the affair. They accessed and broadcast private phone calls made by Lewinsky without her consent. They branded her with labels that stick with her to the present day. Monica Lewinsky soon became one of the first and largest cases of cyberbullying enabled by media coverage.

Monica Lewinsky gave a TED talk in March 2015 discussing how she is still recovering from the drastic turn of events in her life from almost two decades ago. She deeply regrets her past poor judgment of her youth yet is adamant that the media must adapt to become more compassionate. Since the scandal, the internet has become a primary platform for cyberbullying, perpetuating the shame of victims to an unprecedented massive audience. Despite the public citizen’s large role in internet content, the media is the primary facilitator of these damaging practices.

Yes, what Monica Lewinsky did was wrong. However, I find it interesting that Bill Clinton’s reputation has hardly been scathed, meanwhile Lewinsky has been forced to hide from the public ever since the broadcasted affair. Her overnight celebrity establishment and instant public scrutiny immediately held her on a pedestal for public humiliation that would permanently follow her for the rest of her life. Journalistic ethical standards were cast aside in order to cover the story to the fullest and receive the highest view-count possible. Journalists played a fundamental role in the creation of cyberbullying.

Lewinsky reportedly suffered from severe depression and suicidal contemplations after her public skewering in the public eye. As social media became a part of everyone’s lives in 2010, this became less of a case study than a common reality. There is an alarming increase in suicide fatalities provoked by cyberbullying. Lewinsky was part of the initial wave of public humiliation and commoditization by the media. Although Lewinsky represents an acute case that was partially a consequence of her own actions, it does not excuse targeted brutality by professional media providers. Now that the public, in some way, becomes a media contributor, it is essential that there be a level of compassion and mindfulness behind every post, tweet, Instagram or Snapchat because of the possible consequences of these actions. Everyone has the potential to either be the perpetrator or the victim. It is up to us to bring human decency back into the media. This practice would be much more successful if the media providers, the powerful mediators behind the global conversation, set an ethical example to follow.


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