Online news outlets, the Twitter mob and Justine Sacco: who’s the real villain?

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When Justine Sacco boarded an international flight in Heathrow this past weekend, she was a relative nobody. By the time she landed in Cape Town, South Africa, 11 hours later she was the internet’s number one villain.

By now, you most likely know what happened. Just prior to boarding her flight, Sacco sent out a tweet saying: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

It was obviously ill-advised and the uproar it caused ended up costing Sacco, a PR executive at US-based media giant IAC, her job.

But is she really the villain here? After some serious reflection, I’m not so sure.

Make no mistake, I’m not trying to justify Sacco’s actions — I’ll leave that to those who know her personally — but it does seem a little odd that someone with around 200 followers on Twitter managed to grab the attention of the world.

Ordinarily, she might’ve lost a few followers. Some of those that knew her, might’ve rebuked her. Ordinarily Justine Sacco wouldn’t have made headlines around the globe.

Unfortunately for Sacco, her tweet was picked up by Valleywag editor Sam Biddle (give the site a read and make up your own mind about its journalistic credentials). From there, it spread and kept spreading helped along by the fact that the news cycle was unusually quiet.

The fact that Sacco was in the air the whole time meant that she couldn’t respond to any of the criticism that reporters and ordinary members of the Twitter community were levelling at her, or even delete it (a luxury most of us find invaluable whenever we tweet something daft).

Indeed, the story probably would’ve fizzled out a lot sooner had Sacco not been in the air. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet effectively became the story. Without it, online news outlets wouldn’t have been able to keep up the momentum they did and internet users wouldn’t have had time to foster the kind of anger they did.

In other words, Sacco was a punchline, a semi-comic villain with no hope of hitting back. That more or less guaranteed a lot of pageviews at a time when most news outlets are desperate for them.

It would be completely hypocritical of me to suggest that the news outlets shouldn’t have done anything about the incident. The eventual public reaction ensured that it became a news story. It is, however, necessary to understand that under ordinary circumstances a PR executive sending out a misguided tweet to her 200 followers would never have been a story.

Twitter and the failure of sympathetic imagination

As news spread about Sacco’s tweet, thanks largely to online media outlets, the rage aimed at her only seemed to grow. Take a look at some of the tweets sent out as the incident unfolded.


Again, Sacco’s tweet wasn’t the most intelligent piece of prose ever written but was it worse than one human being saying that they hope another person gets Aids? Does ignorance deserve hatred and threats in retribution?

There were, of course, a few cooler heads in the house:


Of course, the former is not exactly the most unusual reaction for the internet. You only have to look at, oh I don’t know, pretty much every Twitter storm ever to realise that.

The reason that happens is, in part, because it’s so easy to lose our capacity for empathy online. It’s a pretty well established phenomenon (Twitter even has a support page dedicated specifically to the topic) but it mostly boils down to the fact that when we interact with people online, we don’t have the same visual and verbal cues we do in ordinary conversation. When we interact with a stranger, we also lose the context knowing them intimately would provide.

Sacco should certainly have thought about what people would have thought if she’d said what she did out loud in a crowded room. Equally though, the people who sent out the most vitriolic tweets against her should’ve thought about how they would’ve reacted if she’d said it to their faces.

For the vast majority, I hope, it’s unlikely the reaction would be the same. A more likely scenario, I would think, is that a reasonable person would take her aside and explain why what she’d just said was not okay.

That much is reflected in some of the most pertinent advice dished out to Sacco, which could just as easily have been aimed at those railing against her:


So, was Sacco wrong to send out her tweet? Undoubtedly. Did she deserve to be fired for it? Perhaps, although there are many who’ll debate that. Is she a cartoon villain that deserved all the hatred and threats aimed at her? To my mind, the answer to that would be no. That Justine Sacco is the creation of a lot of media attention (which in ordinary circumstances would never have happened) and the mob mentality that can sometimes overtake Twitter.

Perhaps the one big lesson we can learn from this is that no one, no matter how much training they have, is immune from the ugly face social media can sometimes put forward.

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