Jon Ronson takes on Internet shaming

Sacco’s original tweet. 

The Valleywag blog post that opened the gates of hate.

British writer/journalist Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats) specializes in human foibles. Many of his subjects have already been judged and found to be zeroes by society’s binary assessment machine (1=good, 0=0). One of Ronson’s interests is what happens to those zeroes after society moves on to assess someone else. Justine Sacco is one such person, and Ronson interviewed her in yesterday’s New York Time’s Magazine. (UPDATE: Ronson’s article is actually an excerpt from his forthcoming book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, to be released March 31. Want.)

Sacco sent the infamous tweet above while waiting for an 11 hour flight to South Africa to see her family. She meant the tweet as a sarcastic satire of white privilege. I could’ve told Sacco that underlying sarcasm and satire are often invisible online, leaving the words they are meant to upend to be taken literally.

At the time she sent the tweet, Sacco had fewer than 200 followers on Twitter. But someone who saw it forwarded it as a tip to the editor of the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag. Valleywag editor Sam Biddle embedded Sacco’s tweet in a blog post and slapped a snarky headline on it, as seen underneath Sacco’s tweet, above. Of course, Biddle’s sarcasm was understood correctly. And then it was Katie bar the door.

You probably know how the story played out online. While Sacco was in-flight, the twitterverse rose up in indignation at her perceived racism. By the time Sacco landed—and completely oblivious to her—she’d been fired from her job and, for a day at least, become the most hated person on the Internet.

Like many people, I was initially amused by Sacco’s plight. But quickly, it started to seem like crowd-sourced cyber bullying. Why would thousands of people go out of their way to pile on this gleeful, retributive bandwagon? How could people who’d never heard of Sacco before decide that her life deserved to be derailed because of one viral tweet? And, what interested me most, how does someone survive such a coordinated and vengeful vendetta of public vilification? Did no one who took delight in skewering Sacco stop to think, “Whoa, one misplaced word here or there, and that could’ve been me?”

Because that’s what I thought. And I questioned how I could ever possibly live through such a public humiliation and shaming. In his article, Ronson talks to Sacco and others who have inadvertently become the momentary target of the Internet’s ire. They’ve lost jobs, relationships, friends. And many of us—myself included, at times—cheered at their shaming. Not our finest hours.