There are many lessons to be learned from one of the most infamous tweets in social media history.
“It was like misogyny, within the warm glow of self-righteousness,” said Welch author and filmmaker Jon Ronson.
Ronson spoke to a crowd inside the Fowler Center at Arkansas State University Tuesday evening about the power and pitfalls of Facebook and Twitter. He's the author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed.
He was describing the chain of events following Justine Sacco's tweet around Christmas, 2013. Sacco was a top public relations executive for InterActiveCorp. Just before a trip to Africa, Sacco tweeted out a joke about a “weird German dude” who needed to get some deodorant. When the joke didn’t spark a laugh from any of her 170 followers, she tried again with “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.”
“So while she was asleep on an 11-hour international flight, Twitter took over her life,” Ronson said.
Online, respondents called for Sacco to be fired. (She was.) Worse, Ronson said, people delighted at the knowledge that Sacco's long international flight meant she was incommunicado. She didn't yet know what everyone else knew, that her life had been thrown into chaos over one bit of ill-advised sarcasm. People posted a flight tracker with a countdown clock marking the estimated wait until she reconnected with social media. When she arrived, she received a text from an old friend she hadn’t heard from in years expressing sympathy over what was happening and an urgent voicemail from her best friend asking her to call immediately.
“At first when you see that tweet, it’s the most horrific combination of words,” said Ronson, who doesn’t believe it was meant literally — Sacco is South African by birth, and the author believes she intended to poke fun at American misunderstanding of South Africa.
He was later shamed himself for writing about the situation with compassion, he told the crowd.
He also pointed out the documentable difference between crowd-shaming a man, and the same rage response directed at women.
“When a man gets shamed, it’s I’m going to get you fired, but when it’s a woman, it’s about rape,” he said.
Ronson said today’s fascination with social media may stem from its early days, when people found that there was a new way to have a voice in the world’s conversation. In the beginning, Twitter "was kind of a Garden of Eden." Today, people seem to have adopted social media shaming as so normal that a day almost feels “weird and wrong” without it.
“When people are shamed on social media, no one tells you that it’s going to be okay,” he mused, perhaps because people know that it isn’t.