Monica Lewinsky speaks powerfully about cyberbullying at Forbes summit

In a rare public appearance, Monica Lewinsky shares her experience of being publicly shamed on the Internet and calls for "radical change" online

By Jamie Khoo | Published: 21 Oct 2014

Monica L speaks up
Photo: Forbes

In what has been only her fourth public speech, Monica Lewinsky delivered a powerful talk at Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Summit about cyberbullying, drawing from her own experiences of being publicly shamed in the ‘90s when her affair with former American president Bill Clinton was exposed.

Beginning with a brief outline of what happened, Monica was frank, honest and didn’t at any time during her speech attempt to excuse her behaviour (“I deeply regret it for many reasons not least of which because people were hurt and that is never okay.”) The talk isn’t about the affair though – anyone even remotely connected to any media in the '90s will have heard plenty about that and most likely already formed their own opinions.

Instead, Monica gave insight into the enormous extent to which she was shamed globally, across the Internet. “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one.” Though the Internet was just starting to take hold in society and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter weren’t even around yet, she regards herself as, “The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed, worldwide, via the Internet.”

She describes, quite emotionally, how very personal material was suddenly accessible to anyone, including friends, family, strangers and even her 80-year-old grandmothers; she recounted the personal threats she and her family received when the news broke; and she remembers the thought that ran repeatedly through her mind: “I just want to die.”

While we reserve judgment on the actual incidents of the ’90s, there’s no denying that the Internet has opened up spaces for bullying and harassment in a way that was never possible before. Hearing Monica speak this intimately in public about being on the receiving end of this bullying emphasises just how damaging the Internet can be.

As well as sharing personal experiences, Monica cited recent statistics on cyberbullying: 54 per cent of young Facebook users, one in five college students, and one in four young women say they have been cyber-bullied; and of all the cyber-bullying related suicides in the last decade, 43 per cent have occurred within just the last four years.

Monica also referenced the suicide of college student Tyler Clementis in 2010, when his homosexuality was made public on the Internet and grossly ridiculed. While she admitted that she had also felt “periodically suicidal”, she was fortunate enough to have pulled through and survived with the support of friends and family. Others mightn’t be so lucky. “What I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive, too,” she said. “I believe my story can help to do something to change the culture of humiliation we inhabit and that inhabits us.”

Ending on a more empowering call of action, Monica urged a “radical change in attitudes – on the Internet, mobile platforms and in the society of which they are a part. What we really need is a cultural revolution. Online we have a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis and … that matters a lot more to most of us.”

The full speech and transcript can be viewed here.

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