This week in class we watched a TedTalk by Jon Ronson where he discussed peoples’ tendencies to behave like a lynching mob on social media when it comes to perceived injustice, as well as the joy people get out of this public shaming. Jon Ronson discussed a particular case of a woman named Justine Sacco. Some of you may remember her as the woman who made a tweet before getting on an airplane from London, England to Cape Town, South Africa that utterly dismantled her life during the span of the flight. She was a public relations worker in New York with 170 Twitter followers. However, her story is proof of how fast word can travel, especially on the Internet. The tweet that ruined her life was this:
Upon arrival in Cape Town, Justine turned on her phone to discover that she was the world wide #1 trending topic on Twitter. It turned out that one of her 170 Twitter followers sent Justine’s tweet to a journalist who then retweeted it to his 15,000 followers, and spiralled from there. Jon Ronson actually emailed the journalist a few weeks after the incident and asked him how it felt to do this, and he exclaimed it felt “delicious.” When I heard this, I was immediately enraged and knew I wanted to discuss this on my blog. How could someone say the destruction of someone’s life felt “delicious”?!?!?! Then, Jon Ronson began to show some of the tweets that were sent to Justine, ranging from demanding her to be fired from her job, to wishing AIDS upon her:
Jon Ronson had a suspicion that Justine’s tweet was actually not meant to be racist. He met with her a couple of weeks after the debacle and asked her to explain the joke, and she said that her intention was to mock the bubble Americans live in when it comes to their knowledge of Third World countries. Clearly, it was not interpreted that way.
Although I do feel that Justine was in the wrong and could have worded her joke much differently to convey what she was trying to say, I don’t believe she deserved to have her life torn apart because of it. I understand how her tweet was misinterpreted, as it’s nearly impossible to detect elements like tone and body language over Twitter that help with interpreting a message, but she made a mistake. Jon Ronson mentioned how it was interesting that someone tweeted, “somebody HIV positive should rape this bitch and then we’ll find out if her skin colour protects her from AIDS” (8:10) as that person received no public persecution whatsoever. So why when we are joining in a mob mentality do we all of a sudden deem this disgusting behaviour appropriate? I can’t imagine any sane person having the courage to say something like this to Justine’s face. However, when we have a mob of people doing the same thing, and we can do it while hiding behind a computer or phone screen, it makes dehumanizing someone a lot easier, and we may even feel a bit of joy sitting back and watching somebody’s life crumble right before our eyes.
While watching this video during class, one of my initial thoughts was, “what if Justine was just doing her best?” I know that may sound like I’m giving her too much of a break, but that is the mentality I live by and also what this blog is centred around, so I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t ask myself that. Once again, although she could have worded her joke way better, the intended meaning was misinterpreted. I do believe that she made a mistake, but we all have made mistakes and bad judgement calls. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised that everyone on Twitter that night was so quick, and excited, to call someone out for their wrongdoing. It’s much easier to do that then take a minute to ask ourselves, “maybe she meant something different by that tweet” and giving Justine the benefit of the doubt. Instead, responding in ways the Twitter users did that night makes us feel better about ourselves; that we’re not the only one who has flaws and makes mistakes. Jon Ronson put it beautifully when he explained that the Twitter users that night were trying to call out someone’s misuse of privilege, essentially something good, however the phrase “misuse of privilege” is becoming a free pass to tear apart anyone we choose to. In attempting to search and find the “bad guys” in our world, we are utterly destroying innocent peoples’ lives, and feeling good about it. I ask this of you: next time you see something online someone has said that bothers you or even enrages you, like Justine’s tweet, take a minute before you respond and ask yourself if you were standing in front of that person with no one else around you, would you still say that comment to them? If the answer is no, don’t post it. Also, ask yourself if there are other ways of interpreting what they said. Who knows, you may have saved someone’s life.