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British Columbia Monica Lewinsky at TED conference: ‘I was patient zero’ in online bullying crisis

Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky speaks at the TED 2015 conference in Vancouver on March 19, 2015.

James Duncan Davidson/Reuters

Monica Lewinsky took a deep breath and launched into a rousing TED talk on Thursday, calling for an end to cyberbullying and online shaming: a phenomenon she has experienced firsthand and which has exploded in the years since with the rise of social media.

"What we need is a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a bloodsport has to stop," said Ms. Lewinsky, in a deeply personal speech that establishes her as a high-profile advocate against cyberbullying.

Ms. Lewinsky, who was a key player in a spectacular scandal involving U.S. President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, emerged from more than a decade of self-imposed silence last year with a personal essay published in Vanity Fair magazine. She told the audience in Vancouver that she has decided to go public to try to turn around what she called a compassion deficit and empathy crisis in the online environment.

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"It's time to stop tip-toeing around my past, time to stop living a life of opprobrium, and time to take back my narrative."

She said her decision to go public at this time has nothing to do with politics. While she didn't mention the U.S. presidential race or Hillary Clinton by name, the implication was clear.

Ms. Lewinsky, now 41, walked a rapt audience through what it feels like to be the target of widespread online bullying. She went back to the events that have shaped her life and almost, she said, caused her death: her affair with Mr. Clinton when she was a White House intern.

"At the age of 22 I fell in love with my boss. And at the age of 24 I learned the devastating consequences," she said, before asking for a show of hands of those in the audience who had also made a mistake at that age. There were many hands.

"So like me at 22 a few of you may have also taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person – maybe even your boss. Unlike me, though, your boss probably wasn't the President of the United States of America. ... Not a day goes by that I'm not reminded of my mistake and I regret that mistake deeply."

She recounted how in January 1998 news of what she called her "improbable romance" broke online – a click that reverberated around the world with devastating consequences.

"What that meant for me personally was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide. I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on the global scale almost instantaneously. This rush to judgment enabled by technology led to mobs of virtual stone throwers."

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Even before the age of social media, the story spread like wildfire and was ubiquitous.

"The attention and judgment I received ... was unprecedented. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo. And of course 'that woman.' I was seen by many but actually known by few."

The experience broke her.

"In 1998 I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything. And I almost lost my life."

While she didn't attempt suicide, she thought about it. Her mother sat by her bed every night, made her shower with the bathroom door open. "Both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death, literally."

She described the humiliation of having to listen to hours of tapes of her phone calls with her once-friend and confidante Linda Tripp because she was legally required to authenticate them, and have to listen to her banal conversations, her catty, sometimes churlish self. "Scared and mortified," she was forced to "listen deeply, deeply ashamed, to the worst version of myself, a self I don't even recognize."

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It was excruciating when the transcripts were made available, then the audio of the tapes aired on TV and portions became available online.

Now the kind of personal humiliation she experienced has become a familiar story in the current landscape.

"Cruelty to others is not new. But online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible. ... Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words. And that's a lot of pain. And there are no perimeters around how many people can publicly observe you and put you in a public stockade."

She called out those who make money off the backs of this kind of shame – gossip websites, reality TV, the paparazzi, the news media.

"This invasion of others is a raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We're in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this type of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click."

As she detailed in her Vanity Fair essay, Ms. Lewinsky said that the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, after a private moment of his was streamed online, was a turning point for her, convincing her to return to the public eye and fight for social change.

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"Every day online, people, especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this, are so abused and humiliated that they can't imagine living to the next day. And some tragically don't. And there's nothing virtual about that."

Ms. Lewinsky cited analysis that said cyberbullying was leading to suicidal ideations more significantly than offline bullying, and other research that determined humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than happiness or anger.

She called on people to support organizations that fight cyberbullying, and to fight shame with empathy by posting positive comments online and reporting bullying.

"I've seen some very dark days in my life. It was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends and professionals and sometimes even strangers that saved me."

She also urged other victims to hang on.

"Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: you can survive it. I know it's hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy. But you can insist on a different ending to your story."

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