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

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