How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life

Jon Ronson, CC BY-SA, Feb 13, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Around 13 months ago Justine Sacco was on her way to South Africa when she sent off a tweet from Heathrow that for all appearances was insensitive and racist. The Twittersphere descended on her while she sat unknowing on a 12 hour flight and by the time she landed she was vilified and fired from her public relations job. This article reports on the fallout. A related article, posted by Gawker Media's Sam Biddle has a similar theme. Biddle is the blogger who essentially found the tweet and created the firestorm, and a year later he met Sacco to talk about it. We read now that it was misinterpreted, and that she was parodying a typical midwestern reaction. But my thought is today as it was back then: what was she thinking?

Both articles suggest that the internet responses are overreactions. Biddle writes, "Trayvon Martin blackface costumes (338,000 page views), ill-conceived brand tweets, the Auschwitz selfie teen (179,000 page views), racist radio hosts (291,000 page views), and so on.... Each time, each slap, was the same: If we could only put one more wrongheaded head on a pike, humiliate one more bigoted sorority girl or ignorant Floridian, we could heal this world." Well, no. But I hold a different view. If we respond enough times to enough apparently racist and insensitive tweets, then eventually people will stop being racist and insensitive. As the Times article suggests, "Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval." Fine. When people stop seeking approval by being racist and insensitive, the world will be a better place. Until then, we should disapprove. Vocally.

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