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‘15 Minutes of Shame’: Sobering HBO Max doc profiles people chastised on the internet

Monica Lewinsky narrates the examination of how one error can result in a firestorm of hatred from which a person can never recover.

Monica Lewinsky, narrator of “15 Minutes of Shame,” calls herself “Patient Zero” of internet-based destruction of one’s reputation.
HBO Max

“I think social media is a good idea, but people ruin everything.” – Author, professor, commentator and influencer Dr. Roxane Gay in “15 Minutes of Shame.”

You might not recognize the name Matt Colvin, but there’s a good chance you remember reading or hearing about the New York Times story from March 2020 about the guy in Tennessee who bought up thousands of bottles of hand sanitizers on the day after the first reported COVID death in the United States with the intention of making a tidy profit. That guy was Matt Colvin.

“He has 17,700 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer and Nowhere to Sell Them,” was the headline in the Times, which reported Amazon had cracked down on coronavirus price gouging, leaving Colvin and other sellers holding the bag (or the plastic bottles, in this case).

As we see in the invaluable, nuanced and sobering HBO documentary, Colvin became a “magnet for worldwide shame,” was pilloried on national media and bombarded with hate texts and e-mails and even had to temporarily move out of his home with his family after his address was made public. “15 Minutes of Shame” catches up with Colvin more than a year later, as he explains his prices weren’t nearly as high as others, noting the article “said I was selling a single bottle for $70, but that was a pack of multiple bottles,” and says shipping alcohol-based sanitizer is pricey because it’s considered a hazardous material.

Did Colvin, an Air Force veteran who got into the reselling business in part because he could work from home and avoid stressful situations, go too far and get caught up in the moment? He acknowledges as much. Did he deserve a level of vitriol that included people publicly wishing for him and his family to die?

What do you think?

Directed by Max Joseph of “Catfish” fame and narrated by Monica Lewinsky, who wryly comments, “Trust me, I know a little about [public shaming]” and calls herself the “Patient Zero” of modern-day, internet-based, mass efforts to destroy someone’s reputation, “15 Minutes of Shame” alternates between interviews with authors, psychologists, researchers and journalists — and revisiting the stories of a few “regular” people whose lives were turned upside down by one incident or a couple of Facebook posts.

Emmanuel Cafferty was driving his San Diego Gas & Electric Truck in June of 2020 when a man thought he saw Cafferty making a white power sign, chased Cafferty, goaded him into making the hand signal again and snapped his picture. When the man, who was white, posted the photo of Cafferty, who is Mexican, it was the beginning of end for Cafferty, who was fired from his job and was raked over the coals on the Internet, even after his accuser reconsidered that he might have misinterpreted Cafferty’s initial gesture and took down his posts.

Emmanuel Cafferty recalls on “15 Minutes of Shame” how he lost his job and was pilloried on the Internet after a photo seemed to show him making a white power sign.
HBO Max

Then there’s Laura Krolcyzk, who was frustrated with Trumpsters denying the effectiveness of ventilators and posted on Facebook, “Trump supporters need to pledge to give up their ventilators for someone else.” Even though Krolcyzk’s Facebook group was private, somebody shared it and it was catapulted into the world, and soon the likes of Republican operative Michael Caputo and Fox News host Sean Hannity were ripping into Krolczyk, who even after issuing an apology was receiving threats of murder and rape and was fired from her job as an administrator at a cancer treatment center.

“15 Minutes of Shame” also delivers a brief history of cancel culture and public shaming, which has been around since the advent of civilization, and features insights from experts such as Mary Aiken, who is an expert in forensic cyber psychology, works with Interpol and U.S. authorities to track down cyber criminals and talks of the “online disinhibition effect,” i.e., “You do things online you wouldn’t do in the real world.” Ain’t that the truth.

We also see that in the earlier years of Twitter, most of the #hashtag movements were about calling out powerful corporations and individuals for wrongdoing, but in recent times the trend has shifted to include singling out everyday people who make an error from which they can never recover. We’re even told about a study that found soccer fans experience a greater degree of joy when their rivals fail than when their favorite team succeeds. “People are very punitive,” says author Roxane Gay. “There’s no tolerance for mistakes or nuance.”

At the outset of the documentary, Lewinsky says, “How did we get here, and where the f--- are we going?”

One thing’s for certain: Wherever we’re going, there’s no turning back.