Digital Scarlet Letters: Social Media Stigmatization of the Poor and What Can Be Done

45 Pages Posted: 12 May 2015

See all articles by Thomas H. Koenig

Thomas H. Koenig

Northeastern University

Michael L. Rustad

Suffolk University Law School

Date Written: 2015


The Internet has created a permanent and pervasive treasure trove of digital fingerprints beyond any scale created by prior information technologies such as television, radio, or the telephone. Internet users increasingly live their private lives in public through the self-immolation of their own privacy. Blogging, photo sharing, texting, instant messaging, and other postings on social media sites obliterate the division between the public and the private spheres. Facebook is where a less educated person can share with friends but this also means sharing how inept they are in managing privacy settings. Wearing gang styles such as a baseball cap worn backwards, colored bandanas, and baggy pants are considered to be cool styles by minority youth but create misleading stereotypes when viewed by mainstream Americans. A minority youth wearing a six-point star, a crescent moon, or a Playboy Bunny symbol to be cool is, in effect, sporting a self-inflicted digital scarlet letter, as these are also styles associated with gang membership. These stigmatizing images are posted on a 24/7 worldwide bulletin board, creating a virtual Scarlet Letter that negatively impacts educational, employment, and other opportunities. We provide a sociological overview of how social media amplifies stereotypic images of the poor that undermine their economic and educational opportunities. We explore the ways that increased Internet and social media usage is a catalyst for advancing equality but also can devalue the uneducated and the poor. The Internet has lifted the veil of individual privacy, so that information about factors like race, class, gender, sexual orientation, obesity, physical handicaps, unpopular opinions, and nonmainstream clothing styles become easily visible to employers, potential employers, college admissions personnel, law enforcement officials, welfare providers, loan companies, landlords, merchants, and many other societal decision makers. Youthful hijinks should not stigmatize an individual forever. We argue for a limited right to be forgotten especially "relevant, when the data subject has given their consent as a child, when not being fully aware of the risks involved by the processing, and later wants to remove such personal data especially on the Internet." The EU's "right to erasure" provision would be particularly useful to America's poor and less educated who seek to remove evidence of their spoiled identity.

Suggested Citation

Koenig, Thomas H. and Rustad, Michael L., Digital Scarlet Letters: Social Media Stigmatization of the Poor and What Can Be Done (2015). Nebraska Law Review, Vol. 93, p. 592, 2015, Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 15-24, Available at SSRN:

Thomas H. Koenig (Contact Author)

Northeastern University ( email )

220 B RP
Boston, MA 02115
United States

Michael L. Rustad

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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