Viral popularity does not always garner positive attention, a lesson learnt the hard way by some.
Recently, The New York Times published excerpts from writer Jon Ronson’s upcoming book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in a piece titled “How one stupid tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life”. After 30-year-old Sacco, a senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began “tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel” while making the journey from New York to South Africa in December 2013, one tweet landed her in a soup.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
“No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers,” writes Ronson. After the 11-hour flight, her phone “exploded” with alerts — she had become the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter. Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News.”
Sacco later told the writer how the public shaming had destroyed her reputation and cost her her job. She spoke of how she could no longer date, “because now we Google everyone we might”.
Salon’s Roxane Gay, trying to dissect the aftermath, wrote, “To be clear, Sacco’s tweet was racist, ignorant and unacceptable. Her cavalier disregard for the global impact of AIDS was offensive. She made a cheap joke and paid a steep price. She has apologised, though it is hard to take the apology seriously because we have become so accustomed to this cycle of public misstep, castigation, apology.”
Jezebel’s Archibal Perkins criticised The Times piece, and said “when the online world sees bigoted, racist, and intolerant things, we literally have no choice but to take that content at face value”.
Sending a warning, Jeff Bercovici of Forbes wrote that “Sacco was not the first person to get herself fired for saying something stupid on Twitter and she won’t be the last”. He reminded his readers that the “faster technology evolves, the more of us will end up taking the plunge. It’s comforting to think it will only happen to those who deserve it, but it’s far from the case.”