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Justine Sacco and the tweet heard around the world — when public shaming metastasizes into an angry mob

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If you weren’t part of it while it was happening on Twitter, chances are you heard about it on the news or from someone who was watching it unfold on the weekend. I’m talking about the Twitter firestorm that was touched off by a single tweet from Justine Sacco, a PR spokeswoman for InterActive Corp. who posted something insensitive about AIDS before a trip to Africa, and arrived hours later to a blizzard of outraged replies and dozens of news stories about her behavior — and to find out that she no longer had a job.

Sacco isn’t the first person to be fired for something she said on Twitter, and probably won’t be the last. And she isn’t the first to show how quickly a single dumb comment can trigger an outpouring of public condemnation that verges on the old villagers-with-pitchforks scene from Frankenstein.

In fact, this kind of thing seems to happen with fairly depressing regularity, whether it’s a troll stirring up trouble during an event like Hurricane Sandy (and then being publicly shamed by BuzzFeed), or some students making racist remarks on Twitter about President Barack Obama — or a guy making deliberately controversial and offensive comments about women and minorities and losing his job over it. All sparked justifiable outrage that quickly metastasized and eventually became something quite different.

Angry flash mobs can form almost instantly

It’s becoming clear that this is just part of the new networked social-media environment we live in, one that makes it increasingly difficult to draw a hard line between private and public — and one that has swift penalties for those who confuse the two. With tools like Twitter and Facebook and the focus on real-time news, a single comment or bad joke or moment of poor decision-making can quickly escalate into an international incident. But is this kind of behavior a good thing? Is this how we encourage positive social values now? Or is it just a faster and more modern variation on the ugly mob?

In the not-so-distant past, someone like Sacco might have made an insensitive comment about AIDS or cracked a rude joke at a party, and those within hearing range would presumably have rolled their eyes or called her to account in some way. But her comment wouldn’t have reverberated around the globe within a matter of hours, drawing responses from hundreds of thousands of people, because we’ve never had the ability to do that before.

The only pre-internet comparison I can think of that even comes close is the kind of ill-timed wisecrack or comment that has been made by news announcers — and sometimes presidents — when they didn’t realize the microphone they were using was still active. As in those cases, one of the arguments for why the Sacco incident escalated to the extent it did is that she should have known better, since she was IAC’s spokesperson and was allegedly knowledgeable about social media and its repercussions.

That said, however, she isn’t the president or the Pope or someone else who is allegedly a public figure and therefore fair game for public condemnation. And while her comment was arguably offensive and ill-considered, does that justify what happened to her? Perhaps she should have lost her job, but what about the death threats and horrible comments left on her Instagram and Facebook pages? At what point does the behavior of those responding to the offence become more offensive than the original comment, or at least out of proportion to it?

Everyone likes to have a scapegoat

In a piece at the Salon magazine site, Roxane Gay refers to a story written in 1948, in which the author describes a society that has an unusual lottery system: everyone puts a name into a hat, and the person whose name is picked becomes a kind of ritual sacrifice, stoned to death by his or her former friends, family and neighbors. There’s also the ancient practice of picking an animal or person to represent the evils of society — the so-called scapegoat — and then exiling or killing them as a symbolic gesture.

Some of what Sacco went through (and Pax Dickinson, and others) was likely driven by the same impulse: since racism and sexism are bad, and we all want to be seen as condemning that kind of behavior, the person in question becomes the symbol of that wrong that we wish to right — and it’s only the unprecedented distribution ability of the social web that turns it from a commendable display of social values into a mob (and when the target of the controversy is unavailable for hours, it seems to amplify the response).

Is there a way to get the benefits of this kind of public shaming without it going overboard and becoming a mob with pitchforks? That’s hard to say. But we seem to be getting more and more chances to get the balance right, so perhaps we will figure it out eventually. I hope so.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / 1000 Words

13 Responses to “Justine Sacco and the tweet heard around the world — when public shaming metastasizes into an angry mob”

  1. Matt Thorn

    I am not convinced by the analogy of what happened here (or in the Dickinson case) to a “mob.” In a real mob, like the one that killed Bijan Ebrahimi in Bristol, everyone present bears some responsibility. The violence was committed by or tacitly approved by all there, unless there was someone there trying desperately to stop it whom I have not heard about. What happened in the Sacco and Dickenson cases were countless people, most not hiding behind anonymity, voicing criticisms ranging from cautious to furious, and a tiny handful of anonymous people making threats. Do you have any idea how easy it is to provoke a threat of violence from an anonymous source on the Internet? It happens constantly, day in and day out, and the vast majority are ignored as the hollow blathering they are. What happens in a highly visible case like this is that some people choose to focus on the handful of anonymous threats and blame them on the majority that are making non-threatening criticisms. Don’t you think it’s a tad hyperbolic to equate a group of people sending words across the Internet with a group of people dragging a person from her home and literally bludgeoning her death in the street?

  2. This is silly. Posting to Facebook or tweeting, or any other social media, is equivalent to saying it aloud in public. If she had said that in public she would have had plenty of feedback from the people around her. Same thing with twitter, just many more people. And as far as being fired, as an employee of her company she is a representative of them and they have every right to fire her. This post is nonsense. I hope I don’t get aids from reading it. Just kidding.

  3. Gary Lowe

    There are over 7 billion people in the world. If 99.99 percent of them were the most enlightened people you could think of, that still leaves 70 million others. Combine that with the way the internet magnifies the behavior/sentiments of a relatively small number of of people and you can see why we’ll always have idiotic comments like the one from Sacco and an over the top responses. Like the balance between driving and traffic fatalities, I think we have live with the fact that the internet is super useful, but will always be subject to idiocy and misuse. I’m fine that that balance.

  4. Racism triggers hate, violence and very strong emotions, especially those who have been victims by it. Look, people have without reason been killed, been denied certain privileges and opportunities, subjected to hate and all the negativity you can think simply because of their skin color. Sacco was very irresponsible about her tweet knowing about the apartheiid, civil rights movement in the US and all the ills of the slave trade and how blacks and other ethnic groups were oppressed and killed because of how they look. These people have suffered so much until they reach that breaking point when they decide no more is no more. They have already been broken and ready to heal and live as one. However, when comments like what Sacco made come to the fore, it just shows you how buried this level of discrimination is among people. IT IS TIME WE STOP WITH THIS RACISM AND GIVE RESPECT AND RECOGNITION TO EVERYONE SIMPLY BECAUSE WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS. NO WHITES OR NO BLACKS ARE ABOVE THE OTHER. WE ARE ALL ONE PEOPLE UNDER GOD.

  5. Can We Stop This Madness?

    Justine Sacco deserves to get her job back and like Cracker Barrel (Duck Dynasty), we should let them know how silly their actions were. I don’t agree or condone Justine’s tweet, but I do agree that she had the right to say it. This kind of behavior by employers is what led me to create my own free speech social media platform that values user’s privacy. (pronounced doesn’t require any personal data to create a FREE account. You can say anything in realtime and it scrolls up and off the screen to be automatically deleted. If you don’t see it when it’s whouted (posted), you won’t see it. Employers will have no legal proof that can be used to discriminate, terminate or justify not hiring the best qualified candidate.

    We are still making changes to improve the Whouter Platform and will soon have an IOS App available. Additional updates will be available soon that include a HashTag Feature that provides Corporation, Sports Teams and Individuals the ability to add a live Whoutering Screen on the website or broadcast of their live event. For all the potential victims of Twitter like Justine Sacco and Congressman Anthony Weiner, will end the mob like madness that cost careers, destroy lives and hurt families. Users can Whout what they want, without fear! That’s the kind of world that I’m trying to create. Join Me on!

    Charles E. Campbell, Founder & CEO, Inc.
    [email protected]

  6. miraclemage999

    Threats of violence and death are always wrong. That being said, Justine Sacco is the Raised-in-America daughter of a billionaire Afrikaner. To make that Tweet… All I can think is that the woman doesn’t have a lick of common sense. Either that, or she has been raised to be so elitist and entitled, that she actually did think that was funny. Or both. No one should be surprised that she lost her job – all technical abilities aside – the woman is an idiot. I think it is important that we hope for Justine to have an extremely long life; ideally with her family in South Afrika.

  7. Chris Taylor

    Twitter as judge, jury and executioner, but the defendant was at 30,000 feet and unaware. This has to be one of the strangest stories to come out of social media since Alec Baldwin blew up (a few times). This was the second thing this week to flare up on Twitter, with Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty as the other.

    Those who weren’t condemning Sacco have said this is a freedom of speech issue, but I’m not so sure. Regardless, freedom has its awkward moments. There’s much more that we can get away with saying than we should say if we’re not willing to face the impact. We should also be careful to judge others until we hear the reason for their words and we shouldn’t drop a bomb, rude or sarcastic, when we won’t be able to respond to the reaction — her comment wasn’t a good idea on many levels, not the least of which was her occupation.

  8. Gary Peeples

    It is ironic that we have advanced to the point where a person can electronically transmit a thought that potentially can instantly be seen by millions, but, be limited to only transmit politically correct thoughts or be ostracized.

    • Frank A NYC

      The mob mentality is not regulated to street mobs. Perhaps twitter can develop a “politically correct” filter in which your tweets are screened for only “approved” comments.

  9. ” or called her to account in some way.”

    Unfortunately I don’t think, based on my experience, that this would have happened.

    As a PR professional she should have known (a lot) better. Twitter being a public medium you have to know and expect that a tweet like that would generate controversy.

    Having said that, death and violence threaths are always wrong.