Tech Inquiry author decries Internet shaming
HOUGHTON — On Dec. 21, 2013, Justine Sacco was about to board a plane in New York when she dashed off a last-minute tweet. She checked Twitter in the minutes after for favorites, or a chuckle in the responses. None of her 170 followers had obliged.
When she landed in South Africa, her tweet had blown up — though not with the ratio she might have hoped.
Her tweet — “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” — had been sent to a writer for the website Gawker. The writer retweeted it, causing a chain reaction of angry responses, some calling for her to be fired, some threatening to assault or kill her.
The incident was an early, though not the last, example of social media piling onto a person, said author Jon Ronson. It’s a phenomenon he said has degraded the cultural conversation.
Ronson is the author of “So You’ve been Publicly Shamed,” which is Michigan Technological University’s Reading as Inquiry assigned book for incoming freshmen.
In the early days of Twitter, Ronson said, he experienced it as a casual place where people enjoyed learning about others. That began to change around the time of the Sacco tweet, he said.
People expressed hatred of the tweet, and others like it — not to be evil, Ronson said, but to demonstrate they were good.
“It was a shorthand, easy alternative to social justice,” he said.
Sacco’s saga also got a boost from dramatic irony. People tracked down the flight information for her plane and tracked the time until touchdown. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended on Twitter, including a slam by then-“Apprentice” host Donald Trump.
Sacco, who was fired from her public relations job after the tweet, had just gotten a new job a year later, shortly before talking to Ronson for his book.
Speaking to Ronson months after the tweet, Sacco said it had been intended as a sendup of oblivious white privilege.
The use of social media can be beneficial in redressing real grievances, Ronson said. He pointed to the dissemination of videos of police brutality, such as a Texas officer pulling a gun on several black children at a pool party in 2015.
But he said the same reflexes are being misused to attack private citizens on the basis of one remark — such as a survivor of a fatal train crash, who tweeted: “Thanks a lot for derailing my train. Can I please get my violin back from the 2nd car of the train?”
“One act was powerful and important, using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield,” he said. “The other was pointless and nasty, a cathartic alternative that has done nothing except contribute to a polarized, fearful, tribal world.”
The lack of face-to-face contact has made a polarized atmosphere easier, Ronson said. In contrast, he told of an 18-year-old in Texas who killed two people in a drunk-driving crash. A judge sentenced him to spend 10 years wearing a placard saying, “I killed two people while driving drunk.”
Instead of inciting a riot, he got a sympathetic response from 90 percent of the people he encountered, Ronson said.
Ronson told the freshmen to use their time in college to foster curiosity and empathy.
“Find your people,” he said. “Find other people who aren’t your people. You might learn something from them anyway.”