Justine Sacco, and being human on social media

UPDATE 2015-02-15: Have we all – Justine included – learned a lesson in context, accountability and digital lynching having real consequences?

Racist tweet. Virtual lynch mob. Death threats. Justine Sacco went from relative nobody to global social media pariah in less than 24 hours, and reaffirmed some of the more cruel sides of social media and humanity.Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 12.26.38 PM

Justine Sacco is (was…?) the Chief of PR for IAC, a multi-brand corporation in the US. So you’d think she’d have been a little more thoughtful before tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” Justine tweeted, then turned her phone off, and boarded a flight to Cape Town. Meanwhile, Twitter exploded…

photo 2When I read her tweet, my own knee-jerk reaction was to call her out on her inference that AIDS doesn’t happen to white people, by saying “You’re married? Married people don’t get AIDS. I promise.”  I tried to let my anger show (in less than 140 characters) that stupid comments like that are relics of an outdated and incorrect assumption of the AIDS epidemic.

More people I follow started suggesting waiting for her at the airport, creating a hash tag #HasJustineLanded, which was picked by several online media sources, who eagerly reviewed her time line for more offensive tweets, of which there were plenty. Justine, it seems, suffers from that very human condition of tweeting before thinking, despite being in PR, which calls on one to react with careful consideration, if one is going to react at all. From the wider Twittersphere, things started to get ugly. Soon, there were calls for the “shit brigade” (I assume to dump buckets of faeces on her, as has happened to people before) and worse.

A statement by her employers denouncing her words and distancing themselves from her followed, and then news that her father was deeply ashamed, and allegedly calling her a “fucking idiot”.

photo 1Justine landed in Cape Town and seemed very surprised by the reaction to her tweet. Her account soon disappeared off Twitter. But that didn’t stop Twitter going on the war path, baying for blood. Pictures of Justine, her sister and nephew started circulating, followed by that most tasteful call to action, death and corrective rape for her and her entire family.

Boy, that escalated quickly!

Several parody accounts sprang up, though these didn’t seem to have much momentum. It was a single tweet that enraged the world, and nothing was going to sway Twitter from publically crucifying this woman. I know. I fed the machine myself, by retweeting memes, calling on Justine to board a plane home and generally adding fuel to the fire.

Some quick-witted folk registered the domain justinesacco.com and redirected it Aid for Africa. Clever, that, and the first sign of someone trying to do something positive out of this mess. Still, the Twitter hate flowed.

Finally, it seemed Justine set up a new account, in order to apologise. Nice, but – maybe you should have considered the bigoted rubbish you were saying BEFORE you tweeted. It’s going to take more than an apology, it seems. Perhaps it would have been better to pull off Twitter altogether,but Justine obviously felt that she could personally address the issue, in a move that appeared she was taking personal accountability for her unwise tweets. I challenged her on one of her apology posts, by reminding her that an apology is just a bunch of words, that can be recanted at any time, just like the stupid, racist comment she was attempting to recant with this apology.

Still, Twitter poured on the hatred, the death threats and calls for corrective rape. I read some of the comments people were directing at her. I felt sickened. Justine went into rage mode, shouting back at all the people hating on her. Just adding more fuel to the fire. Giving Twitter what it wanted – the emotional breakdown of someone who had, in 140 characters, offended their very flexible sensibilities.

Eventually, Justine gave word she was disconnecting, after twelve hours, or so, in which her life changed, thanks to Twitter.

So here’s my take on things.

In the world of social media, where we are each given the chance to shine, and enjoy our 15 minutes of fame, the challenge, in 140 characters, is to eschew political correctness and be entertaining and edgy, without being offensive. Not so easy.

Not so easy, especially as we are all very, very human, and very, very fallible. We are built out of what cultural and familial biases our upbringing bestowed on us; what little of our education sank in and the intellect we allow to overrule, if at all, our passions, our beliefs, our wants and what passes for our principles. We are, therefore, less than ideal, when it comes to meeting this challenge in the allotted 140 characters.

So we fail. Mostly it’s as innocuous as an unfunny, and forgettable slurry of random nonsense, stuff that should have been filtered out by good sense, but wasn’t. So it ends up on Twitter. Sometimes, we fail badly, because text on a mobile phone screen is famous for its inability to render tone and meaning. (We really DO need a sarcasm font!)

Sometimes we fail SO badly that, while being human on social media, we end up offending other humans on social media, who – thanks to the relative anonymity of a profile name they created, and the safety of distance – have a serious knee-jerk reaction. I know. I am guilty of this, myself. Often.

We’re human. Justine is a human, and while her words were stupid, callous, abominably arrogant and careless, they did not warrant death threats. That is NOT OK, humans!

Perhaps the folk who made these death threats didn’t do so with any serious intent of killing Justine, but the words have an impact. Just like Justine’s racist words had an impact on them. Sad irony that they don’t see that.

I DO believe that when people like Justine say these stupid things, they MUST be called on it. Every. Single. Time. Ignoring Justine is giving her space to continue saying stupid, racist things; if not a silent endorsement of the things she says.

But then what is the difference between the death threats made by others, and my calling her out on her bigotry, calling her a troll, and telling her to go home? These are also just words, said in reaction to her words. Negativity upon negativity. And this leads me to ask this: what if something happens to Justine? In her raging tweets from her newly set-up account, she screams at the nameless persecutors, asking if her suicide will appease them. Dramatic? Sure. Serious? I can’t tell – but putting aside the despicable act of saying you’ll kill yourself, in order to get people to back off, what if Justine DOES kill herself? What if someone takes the death threats seriously, and puts a bullet in her head? Then by rights, each and every one of us who went beyond merely denouncing her words will have her blood on our hands. There was a line, and we crossed it.

photo 2In my responses to Justine, on her new account, I apologised for giving her a hard time. I wonder if my words were as empty as they felt; as empty as her forced apologies could have been. I challenged Justine in earlier tweets to not just feed us empty words, but to deliver solid actions, like donating to an AIDS research foundation, or spend some time working on a charity.

But absolution cannot be bought. We can’t just say hurtful things, then buy forgiveness with a donation of time or money. We are honour-bound to correct our behaviour, to learn from these unpleasant interactions, and to grow up; to never repeat them.

photo 4My absolution for giving Justine a hard time? Think before I tweet. Don’t feed the trolls. Remember the human behind the profile.

Sure, call someone on their bigotry, but draw the line there and then disengage. When we rubbish someone like Justine’s humanity, with death threats, we rubbish our own humanity.

UPDATE: I had an inkling that the ‘new account’ I was interacting with may be fake – and it turns out it was. And run by someone who is clearly very good at playing the damsel in distress. Either way, if Justine read the stream of vitriol directed toward her, she may well feel something akin to the sort of emotions played out by the fake account. or someone may take it into their heads to harm her. My words and thoughts stand, whether or not it was Justine on that fake account, or not.

© Dave Luis 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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