Discussed in this essay:
Say you tweet something you mean to be funny and edgy to your Twitter followers — all 170 of them — before boarding a plane to South Africa to visit relatives, something about hoping you don’t get AIDS in Africa, which of course you won’t, because you’re white. You can afford to be funny because you’re not racist — your relatives are ANC supporters, after all — you’re merely commenting on racially disproportionate AIDS statistics in Africa. Who would take you literally? Except that you wake up after an eleven-hour flight to find almost a hundred thousand tweets calling you every vicious name imaginable. You’re one of the top worldwide trends on Twitter, the most hated racist on the planet.
Twitter users doubtless already recognize the incautious tweeter as Justine Sacco, a thirty-year-old P.R. executive with an online persona that Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, describes as “a social media Sally Bowles, decadent and flighty and unaware that serious politics were looming.” Many thought that Sacco — the entirety of whose tweet reads, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” — got what she deserved. The world waited in real time for her plane to land and for Justine to see the response; there was even a photographer at the airport when she disembarked. And the public shaming didn’t last merely a few hours, or a day: over the next ten days her name was googled more than a million times. She was fired (true, public relations didn’t seem to be her calling), lambasted on TV news programs, and followed to the gym by a reporter. Every tweet she’d ever posted was exhumed and microscopically examined for evidence of further character flaws. There were many to be found, because what had seemed breezy when Justine was tweeting to her friends looked very different now that she’d been established as a moral monster. Welcome to modern shaming, where an ill-considered joke can ruin your life.