Last week when Justine Sacco boarded a plane in London and made a joke in poor taste on her personal Twitter account, she had no clue that by the time her flight landed in South Africa, that tweet would have ruined her reputation very publicly, cost her her job, and made her a pariah not only in the social media world, but probably to many in the real one as well. Such is the power of the internet lynch mob.
Sacco is, or was, a communications executive at InterActiveCorp (IAC), a media company whose dozens of clients include The Daily Beast, About.com, and Match.com. On Friday, she tweeted to her (at the time) fewer than 200 followers, “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!” Apparently Valleywag (a Gawker site) somehow came across it, commented upon it, and then, like Frankenstein’s monster, the tweet took on an ugly life of its own.
Within hours, unbeknownst to the in-transit Sacco herself, she became a Twitter trend and Photoshop meme among many thousands of gleeful bullies who puff themselves up over politically incorrect offenses and reveled in her public immolation. The original tweet came to the attention of IAC, and while Sacco was still in the air and unreachable, the company groused that “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC… this is a very serious matter, and we are taking appropriate action.”
Take action they did, firing her apparently before they even bothered to discuss the matter with her and almost certainly get an apology (as of this writing, Sacco has not commented publicly). Their statement read, in part: “There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally.” Then, hypocritically, it went on to say: “We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.”
So instead of defending this employee whom they declared to be a decent person, or at the very least reserving both judgment and action until communicating with her, they publicly threw her under the bus and then had the gall to urge the mob to forgive and not condemn her.
Was her tweet racist? Was it “hateful”? Maybe she was poking fun at white privilege. No one bothered to find out her intent before the internet lynch mob went into action. Frankly, she didn’t say anything that superstar comics like Seth MacFarlane or Louis CK or Sarah Silverman aren’t rewarded for with hysterical applause and fat paychecks. In fact, check out this clip of a Louis CK routine about the advantage of being white. His audience was in stitches. By contrast, an unknown private citizen with a miniscule Twitter audience was attacked ruthlessly and her life effectively left in shambles.
The real story here is not Justine Sacco, whose joke, had it been ignored, would have had zero impact on anyone or anything. The real story is twofold: one, that this non-story ended up being covered by The New York Times, CNN, ABC, the BBC, and other supposedly serious news outlets. In a world ravaged by war, terrorism, sex trafficking, economic devastation, and other life-and-death issues, why did any but the pettiest, bitchiest gossip sites accord her insignificant tweet any attention at all? We must demand better from our news media.
The other aspect of this sad cautionary tale is that the worldwide web empowers every bully who has an internet connection. You can see it in the moral smugness of the vultures who made a joke of Sacco’s fall. We must demand better from each other: a saner perspective and more compassionate restraint. The internet encourages a mob mentality as much as or more than individual expression. Refuse to participate in that mob. Condemn it.
Meanwhile, the destruction of Justine Sacco is a stark reminder that anything you tweet can and will be used against you in the kangaroo court of social media, and you will suffer the consequences in the real world. And the self-satisfied hypocrites will move on to the next victim.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 12/23/13)