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Monica Lewinsky says cyberbullying almost drove her to suicide

Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky told the TED conference in Vancouver today that it was time for her to speak up and stop "tiptoeing" around her past.

Former White House intern tells TED conference she was 'harrassed by mobs of virtual stone throwers'

Monica Lewinsky at TED Vancouver RAW

9 years ago
Duration 0:23
Former White House intern talks about public shaming, cyberbullying

Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky told the TED conference in Vancouver today that it was time for her to speak up and stop "tiptoeing" around her past.

In a deeply personal speech that caused her to pause to hold back tears more than once, Lewinsky described the global humiliation she suffered as the result of her relationship in the '90s with President Bill Clinton.

"At 22, I fell in love with my boss. At 24, I learned what that cost," she said. "Not a day goes by when I am not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake entirely."

The scandal that broke in 1998 was, she said, the first to be "brought to you by the digital revolution," with stories on her available to "anyone, anytime, anywhere."

'I almost lost my life'

The surreptitiously recorded phone calls that were released by the Starr report left her deeply ashamed, she said, of "the worst version of myself. A version I don't even recognize."

The result was a "global humiliation" that included being hounded by "mobs of virtual stone throwers."

"I was branded as a 'tramp,' 'tart,' 'slut,' 'whore,' 'bimbo' and, of course, 'that woman.'"

At the time, she said, there was no name for what happened to her.

"Now, we call it cyberbullying and online harassment.

"In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything," she said. "I almost lost my life."

The 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate posted footage of him with another man, was a turning point for her, Lewinsky said.

Talking about Clementi with her mother, Lewinsky was taken aback at how strong her mom's reaction was.

"She was beside herself … gutted with pain. [Then I realized] she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, made me shower with the bathroom door open — a time when my parents thought I would be humiliated to death. Literally."

Stop public shaming

The growing culture of public shaming online and through social media has meant there is no perimeter to what Lewinsky termed the "echo of embarrassment" felt by those at the centre of whatever scandal takes hold in the public imagination.

"A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry," she said. "How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks; the more clicks, the more advertising dollars.… We are in a dangerous cycle: the more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click."

Lewinsky said what is needed is a "cultural revolution: public shaming as a blood sport needs to stop."

She called for empathy and compassion in the face of cyberbullying and public shaming, asking people to become "upstanders" willing to post a positive comment of support, or report online bullies when they see them.

"Online, showing empathy to others benefits us all," she said. "Just imagine walking a mile in someone else's headline."