Postal Social Media Shaming: Can Online Witch Hunts Destroy Letter Carriers?
Pinioned to the Public Pillory
Social media shaming is a widespread phenomenon. Exposing perceived wrongdoers to the public pillory of the internet has become a popular pastime. Although there may be legitimate instances in which it is justified, such as in the cases of corrupt politicians or abusive police officers, more often than not social media shaming is used to either garner likes and views to a social media page or website, or to blackmail the people being shamed. The objective of the shamer is often financial. The internet terrorist will hold you hostage until you pay to remove the damning video.
A particularly dark downside to the social media shaming phenomenon is when the news media catches wind of a post with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of viral views. Riding the shaming tide, this mass broadcast exposure rapidly hastens the downfall of the unfortunate target. Legitimate critique or not, the uproar can lead to dire consequences, such as loss of employment for the shaming victim.
Social media shaming is not an abstract phenomenon for me anymore. Sadly, it has hit home hard. A mailman in my town sat out of work unpaid for almost a year because of an accusation that attracted the attention of the news media, following the trail of internet buzz like sharks smelling blood in the water. Then, a few weeks ago, I too was threatened with social media shaming. A postal customer unhappy with a legal, perfectly legitimate activity I carried out on the job, in a postal uniform, threatened to throw me under the online crazy train.
The spying eye of the camera is on everyone these days, and letter carriers are particularly prone to being caught on "candid camera." The mailman crosses the front porch of every house on the block on a daily basis, and an ever-increasing percentage of those homes are equipped with security cameras that cover the property from every angle, or at least have a video doorbell monitoring visitors to the doorstep.
A few weeks ago, I was delivering to one such house when I came across a FedEx package in the mailbox. Big no-no. FedEx knows, UPS knows, Amazon knows, every postal competitor is well aware that they cannot leave their packages in our mailboxes. While UPS is pretty good about avoiding the practice, FedEx and Amazon drivers are either too hard-headed or too stressed out to comply.
Therefore, every once in a while I have to retrieve one of these articles and bring it back to the Post Office. From there, I am not sure what happens to them. Either the unwanted intruder is handed over to Fedex, or the company is charged postage for it. Whatever the case, enforcing this exclusive monopoly to the mailbox is quite within my rights, backed up by the postal powers that be.
But beware the all-seeing eye of the would-be shamer! The intended recipient of the wayward package stormed into the Post Office, claiming that I had stolen it from his mailbox. He raged in backed by the damning evidence of a Ring doorbell video. Even though the postal clerks informed him that I was within my rights, the man was not placated. But instead of intimidating through the specter of legal action he took the modern day approach - he threatened me with social media shaming!
Fortunately for me, the story had a satisfactory ending. The clerks found his Fedex package and handed it over. Apparently appeased by them caving in to his bombastic demands, he did not go through with his threat. I was spared the indignity of having my act displayed to thousands of people. I guess you were too - I am not as photogenic as I used to be.
Mailman taking back an unauthorized Amazon package. This could have been me. Was he stealing or just doing his job?
Social Media Shaming as Internet Vigilantism
Wikipedia says that online shaming is a form of internet vigilantism. For those of you born after the glory days of western cinema, where vigilante lynch mobs were stringing up so many horse thieves up from trees they looked like Christmas ornaments, I will use the top Google result to define the term for you, vigilantism being: law enforcement undertaken without legal authority by a self-appointed group of people. It doesn't have to be a law—the wrathful throng may just be enforcing a particular moral standard you might not share.
Alas, Cowboy and Indian movies are just a quaint relic of the silver screen, but the ferocity and random capriciousness of the lynch mob certainly has not diminished. These days, the high-minded, holier than thou watchdogs of the internet will string you up not only for doing the wrong thing, they will subject you to the witch float test for merely saying the wrong thing. Sure, go ahead and exercise your freedom of speech in a Facebook post or a tweet, just make sure it is approved by the political correctness inquisition panel first.
I am not going to rant here at length about the First Amendment, that is really beyond the scope of this article. Just be aware that not only is your freedom of expression being put at risk by online shamers, but as a letter carrier the ability to do, or dare I say keep your job, is subjected to scrutiny by the prying eye of Big Brother.
What is the underlying motive of those who would tie you to the whipping post for a cyber flogging? Dr. Guy Atchinson, at University College Dublin, says that in social media shaming "...there are also darker motivations at work: the psychic pleasure in seeing someone else brought low and humiliated.”
In other words, the self-righteous smugness of the witch hunt. Mob mentality. Our illustrious first Postmaster Benjamin Franklin said it best: “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” Another appropriate quote comes from Carl Jung: "Man in the crowd is unconsciously lowered to an inferior moral and intellectual level, to that level which is always there, below the threshold of consciousness, ready to break forth as soon as it is stimulated through the formation of a crowd." People are social monkeys, they readily surrender the true for the popular, being more comforted by acceptance from their peers than for being champions of the truth.
Canadian journalist Clive Thompson reported in 2013 that "there are 500 million tweets on Twitter, 1 million blogs on Wordpress, and 16 billion words entered on Facebook daily." This was seven years ago, so the number is certainly higher now. Multiply that by the 3.5 billion smartphones (all with cameras) in use around the world, plus the 100 million or so security cameras installed in the United States, increased exponentially by the power x of mob outrage, and that equals the perfect storm of postal disaster. Pack a life jacket.
Okay, he carries pepper spray, but where is the actual act of spraying?
Postal Shaming Categorized
For whatever reason, letter carrier misdeeds make good copy. They generate a multitude of likes and views, and rake in ratings for news networks that piggyback on the outrage. People love a car crash. They like to see the mighty fall. Maybe their own mailman misdelivered a letter, so people experience a sense of vengeful satisfaction watching a time-honored institution get flushed down the toilet. Point is, if you wind up being the shamed, and your case is juicy enough, expect to see your own mug looking back at you from the 6 o'clock news screen.
I did a little research on the extent of postal shaming, and in no time at all I accumulated quite a collection of representative samples, a plethora of postal haters, you could say. Although there were certain activities that dominated the list, there were also a few peculiar postal peccadillos that raised my eyebrows. Here is my categorized breakdown of 23 separate incidents caught on camera, all of them jumping from social media onto the news media. Note: This list is by no means exhaustive; I think I could have scrolled down Google into infinity if I had the time.
Postal Shaming Categories
- Package tossing: 8
- Pepper spraying dogs: 7
- Lawn driving: 2
- Hitting a dog with a vehicle: 1
- Throwing mail into a dumpster: 1
- Urinating on a porch: 1
- Using a gay slur: 1
- Running into a trash can: 1
- Kissing an elderly woman: 1
She looks like she was setting up for a 3-pointer, but what was she really throwing? Breakable or not, justifiable or not?
Package Throwers and Dog Sprayers Exposed
The particularly disturbing bullet on the bottom involved a letter carrier trying to make time with an 89-year-old woman, in her kitchen. The "We Deliver" slogan rings true in strange and unexpected circumstances, sometimes.
The composition of the above list shows that Americans take the greatest offense from the destruction of their property and the abuse of their pets. Postal package tossing is a particularly ubiquitous theme. Sometimes the outrage is merited, sometimes it is not. When a mailman rears back and throws a 50-yard Patrick Mahomes spiral with an Amazon box, that is definitely crossing the line. Dumping off a parcel in the middle of a driveway instead of a front porch, so that the customer later runs over it—lazy bad manners certainly, but not quite so objectionable. One could argue that the postal customer should have looked before backing.
But I have seen other examples of parcel mishandling that make me wonder how they ever made the nighttime newsreel, unless it was an exceptionally slow news day. I saw one mailman, accused of "kicking" a parcel, who appeared to be merely sliding it along with his feet. Another mail lady participant in the Olympic parcel tossing competition slid a package across a porch. She gets points for originality, but I don't think she will medal. Even though her package barely got airborne, she definitely got picked up, then drawn and quartered by the internet inquisition.
The angry mob swarming around these mail tossing videos has no way to gauge the heft and feel of the package the letter carrier is allegedly abusing. It might be a thin leather phone case surrounded by six inches of bubble wrap. The mailman can feel there is obviously nothing breakable in the box, so he airlifts it. That same postal worker might be extremely meticulous about delivering packages that have "Fragile" or "Glass" displayed. He might take your bulk rate baby pictures to the door, to avoid bending the photos, even though the photographer chintzed out and shipped them at the lowest cut-rate possible. These are things that won't get caught on film, because who wants to be bored watching good deeds?
Spraying dogs behind a fence, the second most popular category, would seem to be indefensible. Personally, I never spray dogs, but mailman are allowed to use pepper spray in self-defense. We are even required, while delivering, to have pepper spray on our person at all times. Therefore, to be fair, we must ask ourselves here if there is something in this category of videos that the camera is not seeing.
For instance, is that really a barrier we see there on film, or is there a breach somewhere in the unassailable Berlin wall that does not show up in the range of the camera? Is the letter carrier perhaps using the pepper spray to try to keep the vicious animal from doing an end-run around the fence to sneak up and bite him in the butt?
Furthermore, has the photo been edited prior to release? Maybe the dogs were running around loose out front until the owner called them back behind the fence. There are reasons why social media shamers often refuse to release the full version of their videos to their victims or the courts.
Of course I'm not saying Photoshop is the culprit in every case. There are plenty of letter carriers, a few I know personally, who are hella trigger happy with the pepper spray. These are sadistic jerks who just want to show the dogs who's the boss. I find them a disgrace to the uniform, as well as a potential liability to the postal brand. All I am saying is that the news media should exercise more care investigating what really happened, without blindly accepting the camera's version of events as the truth. I am simply suggesting journalistic integrity. Ha! Silly me.
Okay, yeah, I think she did it.
Hypnosis of the Hive Mind
Relying on the mercy of journalistic integrity is a postal pipe dream indeed. It is better to avoid any possible negative exposure in the first place.
I often ask myself, what would have been my fate had my would-be shamer made good on his threat to ridicule me online? I know, you know, the post office knows that I was simply removing an unauthorized item from a mailbox, but would the social media shark have been honest about it? I can see the caption now: Mailman steals package from a mailbox, without any qualifying explanation to clarify why I took it back. Would the embarrassment have been enough to get me sent home without pay for a few months, while the Union battled to get my job back? Would the simple action of retrieving a package from a box have been enough to send the postal predators on the reef into a feeding frenzy? The accuser seemed like the type who routinely attempted this kind of escapade. He was well versed in the methodology and the terminology. He may have had thousands of social media followers ready to pounce at his command, truth or not.
Fortunately for me, the shamer backed off, and I suppose we will never know the outcome. I'm in the clear now, until the next time it happens. If you wear a postal uniform in the year 2020, there will always be a next time.
It is far too easy these days to chum the online waters with half-truths and innuendo that lure the piranhas out of hiding, eager to take the bait. Accordingly, If you patrol the blue postal lagoon, you need to assume that these bottom feeders are everywhere, and act accordingly. Proceed under the assumption that every house has a camera, and that even a task as innocent as dropping a package six inches from your hand to the floor could make you a star on the shaming circuit. You could go from Unknown to Facebook to Local News to Inside Edition with Deborah Norville overnight.
Even if you were wrongly shamed, even if the photographic record demonstrates doubt, don't expect the Postal service to come to your rescue. The policy of the post office is typically to fire you first, then investigate later. The USPS feels it must demonstrate to the public that it is taking serious measures, so no matter how questionable your supposed crime was, you will be a public relations casualty. Many many months down the road, when the uproar blows over and the restless villagers have turned their pitchforks toward a new target, the Union will probably salvage your job, with back pay. But in the meantime, do you have the cash to weather the storm? And when you do come back, will you be able to endure the damning second glances of customers who once esteemed you, but have now succumbed to the hypnosis of the hive mind?
We are not in the he said/she said, my word against yours era anymore. There is no presumption of innocence, no judge and jury, cameras are the final arbiters of the truth. You are walking through a postal minefield out there, that could explode in your face with any misstep. Tread lightly, keep your dog spray close and your Cy Young parcel pitching arm closer.