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Steal Now, Pay Later

18 July 2017

Australians love to shoplift. Don’t believe me? It is now estimated that we’re losing 2.2 per cent of annual retail turnover, or $4.5 billion, to sticky fingers. Whether it’s sneaking avocados through at the self-serve checkout, slipping a shirt off the hanger and into a conveniently placed bag, or an even more elaborate heist, our appetite for five finger discounts is insatiable. It comes as no surprise then, as more Australians than ever shoplift, that the naming and shaming of shoplifters has reached new heights.

In the pre-Facebook era, thieves only had to risk being caught in the act and perhaps some grainy video stills, which may or may not be printed and displayed at a store entrance. Now, the ubiquity of Facebook pages for even the smallest of businesses means offenders are regularly being named, shamed and vilified by members of their local communities. While I traded small town Australia for the anonymity of Melbourne years ago, Facebook ensures I’m regularly updated on all the gossip regarding my own dreary hometown and its apparent abundance of shoplifters.

The public has forgotten about the tens of thousands of Australian mothers with empty wallets who must somehow buy groceries for the week.

Because I have several older relatives who are confirmed busybodies, I’m frequently treated with store footage of shoplifters in my feed, shared from the pages of local businesses. Since we all love to sit on our moral high horses and shame the poor saps caught on camera stealing a pair of shoes, the commentaries on these posts can be downright abusive. Did it ever occur to the commenter that the person they just called a ‘low life’ and ‘scum’ for stealing sports goods may have a compulsive disorder like kleptomania? Have they considered that the woman they labelled a ‘stupid bitch’ for stealing a paperback book may not be a heartless criminal but merely one of the 2.9 million Australians now living below the poverty line?

Somewhere, between disgracing and defaming the offenders, the public has forgotten about the tens of thousands of Australian mothers with empty wallets who must somehow buy groceries for the week. Another piece of brutally dissected footage depicted two women shoplifting with a child, although the store had the good decency to blur the child’s face. Luckily, children are off limits to public shaming, never mind that the Australian Council of Social Service estimates 17 per cent of Australian children are now also living in poverty.

You’ll be pleased to know, however, that the perpetrators of this vitriolic online commentary aren’t disconnected young people with no sense of social decency. Curiously, it’s more often than not our friend’s mum and the man who serves us every day at the bakery naming and shaming. Recently, a post from a clothing store in a town of barely 20,000 people depicting two individuals’ thievery received over 95,000 views. In the comments, not only were the offenders publicly identified and slandered as ‘low lives’, one commenter even bemoaned ‘faith in humanity is becoming harder to believe in.’ Jeez, never mind the string of IS bombings, the wars and famines currently occurring across the globe – this man considers a woman stealing a $50 t-shirt as evidence of humanity’s great decline.

And while the commenters were certain in their vilifying of people who do things like that, I had a sneaking suspicion they or someone they knew were probably guilty of equal or greater sins. It’s almost as if they used the share and comment buttons to separate themselves from those who do wrong. I wonder, how would these self-righteous individuals feel if evidence of them making racist statements, cheating on their taxes or physically abusing their spouses were left for community discussion?

There will be those, especially who have worked in retail, who would assure me not to feel sorry for those who are shamed for feeling the urge to steal. Sure, it isn’t exactly Les Miserables level depressing – nobody is being thrown in jail for five years for stealing a bicycle helmet!

Still, a disturbing instance of social media shaming of a shoplifter quite literally hit close to home. As a child, my second storey bedroom window faced the street below, and I would often wake up to the people of my neighbourhood driving or walking to work. For years, one of those people was a middle aged woman who worked nearby, whom I often saw diligently carrying a basket of belongings to work and saying good morning to my dad.

Years later, a Facebook video of a woman shoplifting from a local store was aggressively shared, and the woman was soon identified and publicly humiliated. To the delight of the store, this identification led to a charge, which they happily shared in a second post. Commenters disclosed the woman’s identity and work place among other details, so much so that I realised it was the same lady who I observed making her way to work each day.

After that, I got a little angry. Who actually believes they are of such moral fibre that they have the right to publicly humiliate anyone over such a common offence? I would instruct anyone who is considering turning someone in for shoplifting publicly on a social media platform to first make sure they themselves are an upstanding member of their community. The hypocrisy of sinners publicly tut-tutting those caught stealing, which is often carried out under severe economic desperation, is enough to make me wonder if this kind of shaming hints to deeper issues in our society. From the frequency I see footage in my feed, it sure as hell isn’t curbing the issue of shoplifting.

I can’t help but feel these kinds of social media lynch mobs are less of a reflection of the people doing the crime and more a reflection of the communities, denigrating people with a blatant disregard for circumstance or the long term repercussions of their words. While nobody is being thrown in jail for stealing an avocado or a pair of jeans, the slandering and shaming offenders endure on public platforms can often carry a lifetime sentence.


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