Woman ruined, sent death threats after #PermitPatty shaming video goes viral

The latest subject in a string of online shaming incidents was scrabbling to make amends this week as her business life fell apart and the death threats flooded in.

Alison Ettel, until this week CEO of cannabis health product company TreatWell Health, found herself at the centre of a social media storm after threatening to call the police on eight year-old Jordan Rodgers.

Jordan was selling water on the street to raise money for a trip to Disneyland. Ettel reported her for not having a permit, and the girl’s mother, Erin Austin, captured the whole thing on video. “Make this bitch go viral like #BBQBecky,” an angry Austin said on Instagram.

The internet, loving a villain, eagerly obliged. Within hours, Ettel gained the nickname ‘Permit Patty’. The video topped 1.3m views.

In televised interviews, Ettel has said that she was exasperated because the girl had been making too much noise, and that she had asked her mother to keep it down. She has also refuted allegations of racism in the incident. Austin denies that version of events, instead arguing that Ettel made the call without warning and victimised a young child selling water on her family’s own property.

Shaming stories like these quickly sweep social media. Sometimes, the subjects might simply be targeted by memes that die out after a few days. In other cases, things can get far more serious.

Ettel effectively lost her job, resigning as CEO of TreatWell after multiple businesses cut ties with the company following the viral video. She has also received “all kinds of threats. Horrible, horrible images and death threats,” according to a TV interview during which she said that she regretted the incident and apologized.

Ettel joins a long list of online transgressors who have lost their jobs and been threatened over the years. Transgressors like Lindsey Stone who received death and rape threats after she posted a photo of herself making inappropriate gestures next to a sign in Arlington cemetery.

In his Ted Talk, Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, discusses the ramifications for another infamous target of social media immolation: former IAC PR exec Justine Sacco, who tweeted about HIV and race during a trip to South Africa.

The touchstone for these various shaming incidents are all different. Sacco’s was a poorly-crafted tweet, which she later said was intended to poke fun at those living in a privileged bubble but which was taken at face value by the Twitterverse. Stone’s was a picture that thousands took as a national insult but which she created as a series of pictures intended as a private joke between her and a friend.

Ettel’s was a neighbourhood escalation that could have been avoided with a deep breath and some fresh perspective, but which ended up on video for the internet to see and interpret as it wished.

A lack of civility often kindles escalations such as Ettel’s – and statistics suggest that civility is a dying skill in America. Civility In America, a nationwide survey of 1,126 adults conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, found this year that three quarters of Americans felt a lack of civility has reached crisis levels in American life. Americans experience incivility almost once each day, while 89% say that it leads to intimidation, threats, and harassment.

A rush to anger in real life may spark incidents such as Ettel’s but the lack of civility is often amplified online: 25% have experienced digital incivility, up nearly threefold from 2011 while 69% blame the internet and social media for the erosion of compassion and manners.