Monica Lewinsky was ‘patient zero’ of online bullying, TED conference hears

Monica Lewinsky has delivered a powerful speech about the devastating effects of online harassment, describing herself as “patient zero” of cyberbullying  and pleading for more compassion on the internet.
Shanghai night field

In a rare public appearance, at a TED conference in Canada, the woman who will forever be remembered for her time as a White House intern described how her 1998 affair with then-United States president Bill Clinton erupted on a global scale overnight.

The now 41-year-old said not a day went by that she wasn’t reminded of the affair she had as a 22-year-old, a mistake she regretted “deeply”.

But she said coverage of the scandal occurred at a time when digital media was emerging, and led to an international public shaming that at the time was unprecedented.

Now, with the saturation coverage of digital and social media, it was becoming all too common for people to become the victim of cyberbullying, which could have devastating consequences.

Ms Lewinsky told the conference she “was patient zero, of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously”.

“At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss. At the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences,” Ms Lewinsky said at the TED conference, held in Vancouver on Thursday, local time.

“Now I admit I made mistakes – especially wearing that beret – but the attention and judgment that I received, not the story, but that I personally received, was unprecedented.

“In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity … I lost my sense of self.

“When this happened to me, 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyberbullying,” she said. “It was the first time traditional news was usurped by the internet, a click that reverberated around the whole world.”

Ms Lewinsky, who has rarely spoken publicly since the scandal emerged 17 years ago, said she found herself being attacked online by people she did not know.

“The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable,” she said. “I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and of course ‘That woman’. I was seen by many, but known by few.”

She also pointed to recent scandals, including the nude photo leaks involving Jennifer Lawrence and the Sony hacking scandal.

“Public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry,” she said. “And what is the currency? Clicks.”

The suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a US college student who killed himself a day after other students secretly streamed footage of him kissing another man, had also prompted her to speak out in an attempt to help others deal with the pressure, she said.

What saved her at the time, Ms Lewinsky said, was compassion shown by family, friends and sometimes even strangers.

She called for a “cultural revolution”, away from the “culture of humiliation” and towards an internet community of empathy and compassion.

“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,” she said.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.