The Debate | Society | Southeast Asia

Public Shaming is Terrible, But So Is Poor Journalism

The online attacks on Vietnam’s “Patient 17” were disgraceful, but there is no evidence that her identity was leaked by the Vietnamese government.

Public Shaming is Terrible, But So Is Poor Journalism

Vietnamese residents are registered for COVID-19 rapid testing in Hanoi in April of this year.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Truyền Hình Pháp Luật

In late September, The New Yorker published a lengthy feature about a number of individuals who have endured public shaming for their perceived selfishness in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular – and perhaps unexpectedly for the august American publication – the article’s narrative about Vietnam’s “Patient 17” caused quite a stir among Vietnamese social media users in the days following publication, when thousands posted angry comments on The New Yorker’s Facebook page.

A little bit of context is needed. At a time when Vietnam had so few cases of COVID-19 that they were referred to by number, Patient 17 referred to N.H.N. (abbreviated for anonymity), a London-based fashionista from an ultra-wealthy family in Vietnam. Several days after returning to Hanoi in March, she was confirmed positive with COVID-19, becoming the 17th confirmed case in the country. Without a transparent health declaration upon arrival, she unwittingly infected many on the same flight and kicked off a large-scale campaign by the authorities against community transmission that was both costly for the state and a population that was subsequently placed under long-term lockdown. Patient 17 and her sister in Europe, who was also positive with the virus, become the target of massive online public shaming campaign, as their identities were leaked out across many social platforms.

Make no mistake, The New Yorker feature set off on the right foot by calling attention to the ugliness of the public shaming to which to the pair were subject. Public shaming is unequivocally wrong, even more so when it hinges on social tensions surrounding issues like gender or race or social status. That Patient 17 and her sister were named and shamed on social media was utterly disgraceful.

But I think the piece contained misrepresentations that may eventually do a disservice to victims of public shaming. The author accused the Vietnamese government of leaking Patient 17’s personal details, and so kicking off the whole ugly spate of shaming. But the piece offered not one shred of evidence to support this claim; the accusations were based solely on the necessarily one-sided account of Patient 17. At one point, the article claims that the Vietnamese authorities “made a show of locking down her street” and that the government, “clearly committed to making an example of [her],” without citing any source other than this alleged victim.

I am not saying that the Vietnamese government is not capable of staging such a smear campaign. Scapegoating is certainly in Hanoi’s playbook. But it is counter-intuitive to think that the authorities would be willing to do the deed just to retaliate against this patient for ruining their prevention work, as the article suggested. Occam’s Razor may apply here, since there are several simpler explanations.

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First, this is quite likely a case of poor journalistic practice within Vietnam. The Vietnamese press is not exactly known as a good guardian of personal privacy. Even if a person’s identity is protected by one news outlet, you can almost always easily retrieve it from another. Vietnam has recently put into place regulations to safeguard information security, but it is a well-known fact that quite a few news aggregators and outlets frequently print and distribute personal information without heed of the consequences.

Second, one should not underestimate the power of citizen journalism, which has been greatly empowered by social media. There are way many cases in which reporters can get wind of newsworthy information from social media users. The symbiotic relationship between the press and social media is well understood in Vietnam. There is a good chance that the shaming of Patient 17 might simply have stemmed from information dug up online.

Another claim in The New Yorker’s article is that Patient 17’s social prominence and wealth explained why the public shaming was so vicious. “In Vietnam, we are too privileged—we travel too much,” Patient 17 said. She ascribed the extraordinary attention she and her sister received elsewhere to racism, noting, “If this was Paris Hilton, there would not be so much fuss.”

That insinuation is unfounded, since what drove the public shaming was her lack of responsibility to the wider community. She did indeed lie about her travel history, including the use of her second passport upon arrival in Hanoi to circumvent mandatory testing. Consider a similar case: in the same month, another socialite from one of the wealthiest families in Vietnam also returned to Hanoi from London while infected with COVID-19. However, she was brought home on a private jet chartered by her father, who had also donated billions of dong to the fight against the virus. Her identity was also released to the public, but few raised their eyebrows at her case. Her family’s display of wealth was even applauded as a good example of responsibility to the larger community.

This suggests that the root of the public shaming of Patient 17 was more likely her sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility. Ironically, if her social status were a key factor, one would assume that the authorities would have to think twice before leaking her details. Say all you want, but the last thing the Vietnamese government wants during a viral pandemic is to fuel social unrest on the grounds of the country’s ever-widening inequalities of wealth and income. Nor does it make a lot of sense for the government to provoke such a prominent and well-connected family. Also, the government certainly did not “make a show of locking down her street,” since they have applied the same lockdown rule to entire communes in a bid to prevent community transmission.

Indeed, some readers could be forgiven for viewing this article as a public relations effort on behalf of Patient 17. After laying out a long list of accusations against the Vietnamese government, the article then announced that the patient’s sister has overcome the infamy and been developing “environmentally responsible line of self-care products,” which she hopes “to launch by end of year.”

In short, public shaming is unjustifiable. But painting this patient as an innocent victim simply does not align well with the facts. Many have pointed out that Patient 17 never publicly expressed remorse for all the trouble caused, nor any gratitude for the pricey healthcare services she was provided for free. Her entitlement and irresponsibility have been more than obvious –  now and then. The New Yorker article, in the end, is poor and biased journalism that has had quite a harmful effect on all parties involved. The patient has been forced to relive the public backlash from which she said she had tried to escape. Vietnam’s government was depicted in a poor light, compounded by its own track record in other matters. And the article, while raising hell over public shaming, may as well be a prime example of media bias that has gradually been alienating significant segments of the public.

Vu Lam is a researcher of public diplomacy and soft power. He holds a PhD in International and Political Studies from the University of New South Wales, Australia.