I spent some time watching Olivia Jade Giannulli’s Vlogs. I watched her spend ten minutes humble-bragging about expensive Christmas gifts. I skipped through her travels to Fiji, which served as a destination backdrop for trying on outfits. I listened as she wandered the USC campus, asking a friend when class was done, so she could take her followers shopping at Target.
I watched until I started feeling angry, and embarrassed. Not because of Olivia Jade’s privilege, but because I’d chosen to focus my energy on her at all.
Shortly after news broke of the recent college admissions scandal, in which 50 people (including parents, college athletic coaches, and test administrators) had been charged with bribery schemes to secure places for students in elite colleges, the majority of media coverage focused on a handful of particular faces. Actresses Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, became the most sought-after targets of public disgust and rage.
Olivia Jade is a social media influencer, whose YouTube videos focus on makeup, fashion, and living in a dorm while attending USC. It is not yet certain how much she knew about the $500,000 in bribe money her parents paid Rick Singer, self-proclaimed “life coach” and guy who is in the most trouble, to get her into the school. Those details didn’t matter to the public mob of the internet, who quickly gathered enough information to convict and shame Olivia Jade, within comments sections, calling her: a “dumb bitch,” “slut,” “liar,” “cheat,” “ungrateful,” and “better off dead.”
It took a few days, but comments on her social media accounts have since been hidden and disabled, presumably with the help of a high-priced PR company. Last I checked, there was an average of 2,000 comments on each of Olivia Jade’s recent Instagram photos, ranging from death threats to stories by young people who were not admitted to similar Universities, expressing the hardships they face which she will never have to experience personally.
Among the internet tabs I had open to learn about admissions scandals were articles referencing Kelley Williams-Bolar, and Tanya McDowell, two black mothers sentenced to jail (separate, unrelated incidents) for using an incorrect address in hopes of getting their children admitted to a better school district. Their stories have been recirculating, illustrating the extreme racial and economic inequalities at play, but they aren’t garnering nearly as much attention as uncovered video clips of Olivia Jade declaring how excited she was to attend school parties, but not for classes.
Our collective focus on Olivia Jade functions as public distraction. It distracts those of us who say we care about injustice from challenging a system designed for wealthy families to retain power, regardless of merit. When we accuse her of personally stealing an admissions spot from a more talented, underserved student, we are turning our attention away from higher education’s role in historically favoring legacy students and reinforcing white racial privilege.
Online shaming has real bodily consequences, too, on those who become targets. Depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, and suicidal ideation are all common responses to the attention. Doxing (the act of researching and broadcasting private or identifiable information about an individual to encourage harassment) has damaged the lives of many, most overwhelmingly those of women, targeted by men. Even in my relatively small visibility as an organizer of independently published zines, I have been trolled and harassed online, by men, almost every single year. It is certainly worth noting that, although there are many suspects who are men involved in this scandal, the men are receiving noticeably less attention and outrage than the women.
So, should we stop online shaming completely?
No. When someone acts like a terrible human being and the interaction goes viral, public shaming is an opportunity to shift power away from that person. Being humiliated by thousands can put pressure on the places of work and schools associated with that person to sever its ties. When a video surfaces of a white woman calling the police on a black man, online shaming can, at the very least, deter other white people watching from risking the same type of humiliation. In matters of life, death, and the weaponization of white tears, humiliating-to-action can be a necessary measure.
It is, however, a flawed strategy. When “BBQ Becky” (Jennifer Shulte) or “Permit Patty” (Abigail Herbst) are assigned a humorous alias to expand their story’s media coverage, writer David Dennis Jr. reminds us in his opinion piece that “these nicknames are only shielding white women from real consequences.”
Even when a person’s legal name is used in connection to their shaming, accountability is not guaranteed to last. When Justine Sacco sent a racist tweet moments before boarding a flight from New York to South Africa, Twitter followers had ensured her reputation was destroyed before the plane even landed. Her employer, IAC, made a point to publicly fire her. She was immediately vilified for being “ignorant”, but there was a lack of media discussion to follow about the implications of her racism. Now that the attention has faded, IAC has since re-hired Justine Sacco, stating “Very few people in the business world have Justine’s indomitable spirit, tenacity and drive to persevere. That’s the kind of talent we seek. I’m very happy to have her great mind and boundless positive energy back on the team.”
When thousands of people bully one person, do we expect that person will see themselves as anything other than a victim? It takes dedication, growth, and internal work to separate ones’ self-worth from humiliation, especially on a national scale. Rather, it’s probably easier and, therefore, most likely that the people who have experienced online shaming will surround themselves with people who will instead work to protect their feelings. Public shaming acts to satisfy the crowd, not do justice. Destroying Olivia Jade’s reputation is not going to undo her unearned advantages. It won’t force Universities to admit their role in creating disparity. We may feel better when we laugh at a public figure’s virtual demise, but the system is still rigged, and someone else out there is laughing at all of us because of that.