SALT LAKE CITY — In a world where reputations can be destroyed online while we sleep, a 24-year-old Rhode Island woman has emerged as a symbol of hope.

Tori Perrotti not only weathered an episode of what has become known as “Twitter shaming,” but she also is using her newfound fame to help others. Perrotti helped to raise more than $16,000 for a Kroger manager who had been ridiculed on Twitter over a dispute with a customer not wearing a mask, and she’s launched a campaign to encourage others to pause and choose kindness over anger.

In this way “Target Tori” and “Kroger Andy” are showing America a way out of the virulent shaming that is a derivative of “cancel culture” but more focused on ordinary Americans than celebrities.

The experiences of Perrotti and Andrew Morrison also show the danger of rushing to judgment on the internet, since the workers were not targeted for a behavior widely considered abhorrent, but for simply doing their jobs to the best of their ability in a time of heightened stress.

“Anyone in the service industry understands that people bring in their frustrations from the outside into every interaction, every conversation that they’re in,” Perrotti said. “It’s so important that we take a moment to pause and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and to listen to that person and try to understand them, instead of just trying to be understood ourselves.”

Infamy forever

Some people have argued that internet shaming can have value by pointing out reprehensible behavior, as in the Central Park encounter between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, who were not related, earlier this year.

Others point out that shame has long been a component of justice, from the Puritans’ stocks and public whippings to more recent sentences handed down by judges, including one against an Ohio man. After pleading no contest to harassing a neighbor, he was ordered to stand on a street corner wearing a sign that said, “I AM A BULLY! I pick on children that are disabled, and I am intolerant of those that are different from myself.”

And when Twitter shaming was just emerging, there was a sense that the practice represented “a democratization of justice, hierarchies were being leveled out,” Jon Ronson, author of the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” has said.

And ethicist Matthew Beard wrote, “Even if it’s unethical most of the time, that doesn’t mean the practice is entirely unethical, nor does it mean it’s unreasonable.”

But if the goal of shaming is to encourage moral behavior, the speed and force with which an internet mob acts often far exceeds what is necessary. A case often cited is that of Justine Sacco, the New York woman who posted a tweet widely seen as racist as she was boarding a plane to South Africa in 2013. She deplaned six hours later to find herself the most hated woman on Twitter — and unemployed.

She later told Ronson in an interview for The New York Times Magazine that even relatives told her she had “tarnished” the family. “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,” she told Ronson. “It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.”

After a year, Sacco was able to painstakingly rebuild her career, but the incident still exists at the top of the page in a Google search, similar to how unflattering photos of Perrotti and Morrison will live long on the internet.

Writing for the New Atlantic, Rita Koganzon summarized the problem:

“Internet mobs have short attention spans and a limitless supply of targets, ensuring that your time in the virtual stocks will be brief. But the infamy will live on forever on Google, where the first thing that prospective friends and employers will learn about you is that the entire internet has deemed you an irredeemable bigot and a toxic liability to the species.”

Unless, as Perrotti shows us, you make equally big headlines in another way.

Perrotti became known as “Target Tori” after shopper David Leavitt snapped an unflattering picture of her earlier this year during an encounter at the store in Swansea, Massachusetts, where she worked. He then posted the photo on Twitter, where he complained that Perrotti wouldn’t sell him an electric toothbrush for 1 cent.

He also posted the state law that requires that all items for sale be clearly marked with a price and that the store honor the posted price. The toothbrush in question, however, was marked as “display” and was not for sale, Perrotti told him. (It sells for $99.99 on the Target website.) But Leavitt insisted and called the police, who told him he’d have go to court to resolve the matter.

“You can’t explain what it feels like to be thrust into the spotlight in such an odd way, such an unconventional way,” said Perrotti, who learned from her manager that she was trending on Twitter a few hours later.

But unlike Sacco, Perrotti was largely being defended by people who thought Leavitt was being unfair and were asking him to take down her picture. (He didn’t.) And one Twitter user set up a Go Fund Me account for her saying, “I have started a GoFundMe to send Tori on a vacation. Anyone that has to deal with this twerp definitely deserves it. I’ll start with a $50 donation.”

The account ultimately raised more than $34,000, and in March, Perrotti went to Hawaii, where she tweeted “I can’t put into words what it feels like to be so cared about. You have changed my life and I promise that when I go home I will continue to spread positivity in the name of #TeamTori.”

So in August, when Perrotti saw that Andrew Morrison was being similarly mocked on Twitter for not doing more about a customer who was not wearing a mask, she repaid the favor by setting up a Go Fund Account for “Kroger Andy.” That drive had a goal of $5,000 but eventually raised more than $28,000, some of which Morrison used to throw a party for his co-workers at the store.

Shields of support

In both cases, the original tweets contained photographs that Perrotti and Morrison would rather not see are in their Google searches, but the intended shaming was thwarted by a loving community that rallied around the workers. This is a strategy that Australian ethicist Matthew Beard suggested in his essay in The Conversation.

“Imagine if, instead of using social media as a ‘sword’ against those involved in shaming, we used it as a ‘shield’ to protect the victim. If groups used their collective mass to send messages of love and support to the person being shamed they might drown out the abusive voices without perpetuating a vicious cycle,” Beard wrote.

People respond differently to shaming, said June Tangney, a psychologist, professor at George Mason University and co-author of the book “Shame and Guilt.”

Some people are able to shrug it off, while others, Tangney said, are “shame prone.” Often, “The better the person you are, the worse you feel,” if you’ve truly done something wrong, she said.

Tori Perrotti poses for a portrait in Wickford, Rhode Island, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. Perrotti says she was the subject of an attempted internet shaming by David Leavitt after she refused to sell him an electronic toothbrush at Target, mislabeled for a fraction of the selling price. The majority of the online community took Perrotti’s side, raising over $30,000 through a GoFundMe page. | Alex Potter, for the Deseret News

And attempts at shaming people for a behavior — for example, for not wearing a mask — aren’t productive if the other person believes they are doing the right thing. “It’s not going to make them change. People will just get angry and sometimes violent,” Tangney said.

Beard suggests that jumping in to offer support is a way that people can be part of the solution to shame culture.

“This might not be ethically necessary as a response, but it does strike me as a possible circuit breaker — both in terms of the cycle of shaming and counter shaming and with regard to the feelings of anger, retribution and aggression shaming tends to generate,” Beard said.

As for Perrotti, she is no longer working at Target, but said she is grateful for the support the store provided, and she is promoting a new venture that she calls “Pause, Be Kind.”

“Something as simple as pausing before speaking or typing can make the biggest of differences in our relationships and ultimately our world,” she says on the website.

Perrotti said she has never interacted again with the man who posted her picture on Twitter, and she has empathy not only for people who have been shamed, but for those who do the shaming. “In those 30 to 60 seconds when we want to cancel someone, we’re not our best selves,” she said.

“He hasn’t apologized, and honestly, I don’t need it. If anything, I want to thank him for giving me an opportunity to speak out about this part of our culture, and how harmful it can be,” she said.

Tori Perrotti walks her dog in downtown Wickford, Rhode Island, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. Perrotti says she was the subject of an attempted internet shaming by David Leavitt after she refused to sell him an electronic toothbrush at Target, mislabeled for a fraction of the selling price. The majority of the online community took Perrotti’s side, raising over $30,000 through a GoFundMe page. | Alex Potter, for the Deseret News