Former White House-intern and activist Monica Lewinsky was given a standing ovation after her speech on the dangers of cyberbullying and public shaming at the Cannes Lions festival last week. In the talk, which was sponsored by Ogilvy & Mather, she called out advertisers and marketers, who she believes are "fueling a blood sport of public shaming" online and off.
After her affair with then-President Bill Clinton was exposed in 1998, Lewinsky became what some regard as among the first private individuals to be publicly scorned in the Internet age. "Yes, I'm in rap songs," Lewinsky stated. "By my original count, it was almost 40 rap songs, but it actually turned out to be over 120."
Lewinsky, now 41, dropped out of the public eye for nearly two decades after the scandal, which led to Bill Clinton's impeachment. But in the past year, she has returned to the limelight as an anti-cyberbullying activist. In June 2014, she wrote a piece for Vanity Fair titled "Shame and Survival." Earlier this year, she gave a TED talk on "The Price of Shame."
During her speech at Cannes, she described her life post-shaming as ultimately a "branding problem." "I was branded as a tart, slut, whore, bimbo, floozy and, of course, 'that woman,' she says. "I was seen by many but truly known by few." She describes, in effect, two Monica Lewinsky's: the self that she knew, and the one that public saw.
Lewinsky pointed to digital news as partly responsible for the way her story was digested by the wider public. "When the story broke in January 1998, it broke online. It was the first time traditional news was usurped by the Internet. A click that reverberated around the world.
What that meant for me personally was that overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide."
She likens her experience to that of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate recorded and posted video online of him being intimate with a man. When excerpts from the Starr Report were published, she said, containing taped conversations between her and the President, her private life was made the property of the public.
"Online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified," she said, "uncontained and permanently accessible. It is loud, and there are no borders, no perimeters around how many people can observe it once and put you in a public stockade."
Ultimately, Lewinsky points to a dearth of compassion in our interactions online. Speaking to the crowd of creative communications professionals in the room, she called upon them to encourage responsibility over our communications online. "If people are compassionate," she says, "brands will be compassionate in return."
Read the full text of the speech here.