Justine Sacco deserved to lose her job for her idiotic tweet about AIDS in Africa. She worked in public relations at IAC, a big Internet company, and was responsible for an epic Internet public relations disaster. But the gleeful way she was publicly destroyed as she was stuck in the air, unaware and unable to respond or delete her social media accounts, is still chilling. We’ve built ourselves a panopticon in which any one of us can be singled out for minor transgressions and transformed into a meme for jeering global flagellation. Almost any of us could be vulnerable to a crowd-sourced inquisition.
It’s still not clear whether Sacco’s infamous tweet—“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding! I’m white”—was a very bad racist joke or a very bad joke about racism. Consider a structurally similar quip that appeared on Twitter a couple of days ago: “Going to NYC, hope I don’t get stopped and frisked. Just kidding! I’m white.” Is it possible that Sacco meant something similar? Certainly, her gibe lacks the bitter logic of the stop-and-frisk joke, but the intention behind it is still ambiguous.
Of course, intention is not the same as effect. Whatever Sacco meant, her tweet was gross and offensive. But it was just one of many, many gross and offensive tweets that continuously pollute the Internet. Even if we assume the worst about Sacco—which the Internet, naturally, did—she still didn’t deserve to become, as a Buzzfeed headline put it, “The World’s Top Story,” covered by The New York Times, CNN, BBC and other major outlets worldwide. She didn’t deserve to have her father dragged into it, via a citizen journalist who tracked him down at the airport while he waited for his daughter. She didn’t deserve to then have her father’s denunciation of her—he reportedly said he was “incredibly ashamed of her” and called her a “fucking idiot”—broadcast to the world. She didn’t deserve to be treated like a monster on par with Ariel Castro.
There may be no way to stop these sorts of digital pile-ons. But Buzzfeed didn’t need to elevate it by breathlessly covering the play-by-play. GoGo, the inflight WiFi provider, didn’t need to use it as a marketing opportunity, tweeting, “Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @GoGo flight! CC: @JustineSacco.” (The company later apologized.) USAID’s Office of Global Health didn’t have to tweet five times under the #HasJustineLandedYet hashtag. Sacco was not a celebrity. She worked for a media company, but she was not a media personality—she had around 200 Twitter followers. Established journalists, companies and agencies should not be joining in the cyber-bullying of private citizens, even those who say awful things.
Sacco’s cause has now been taken up by right-wing outlets like Breitbart.com, which sees her ruination as an act of left-wing ideological intimidation. “[Y]our outrage should be directed at an elite media lynch mob that set out to destroy a private citizen without the benefit of the doubt or hearing her side, not some immature woman whose only crime is trying to ape Sarah Silverman,” wrote Breitbart’s John Nolte. It would have been nice if conservatives had summoned similar concern about the destruction of private citizens last week, in the midst of the ugly right-wing witch-hunt against Ethan Krupp, the Organizing for Action employee who modeled for the infamous Obamacare Pajama Boy ad. It’s particularly rich to see Breitbart.com, the site that smeared Shirley Sherrod and cost her her job, suddenly aghast over an online assault on a private person’s reputation.
Just because someone is a hypocrite, though, doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong. “If you think, for whatever reason, that what happened to Justine Sacco is okay; I’m assuming you won’t have any problem with me watching your personal social media accounts, blowing up at Breitbart News what *I* deem offensive, and then, without asking you, contacting your employer and demanding you be fired,” writes Nolte. [The italics are his.] This is worth thinking about. The next Justine Sacco may be someone who tweets something stupid about the military, or Israel, or motherhood and apple pie. Once we decide it’s OK to let a mob loose on anyone who’s offended us, the only people who are safe are those who never say anything at all.