How Social Media Outrage Can Ruin Lives

Justine Sacco's infamous Tweet sparked worldwide controversy, but it's also a case study in the swift and heartless nature of social media outrage.


During the 2013 year of outrage, there was one incident social media communities found particularly enraging. Justine Sacco, who was director of corporate communications at IAC at the time, tweeted about hoping she didn’t catch AIDS before hopping on a flight to Africa. The Internet was out for her blood before her plane landed. In a new interview with The New York Times, Sacco explained what it was like to be on the wrong side of an internet mob.

Sacco’s treatment is like that of many others online. First the perceived transgression is picked out by a few individuals, then, stripped of its original context, it balloons out of proportion. If the story gets large enough, trending topics like #HasJustineLandedYet emerge, and it seems the whole internet has proceeded to pile on. One Twitter user even went to the airport in Cape Town to get pictures of Sacco after she landed.

Jon Ronson, author and journalist, wrote about why he used to participate in these kinds of events in the early days of Twitter:

[T]he collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized.

However, as time passed the mob seemed to target everyone and anyone:

[T]hey targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

Ronson interviewed Sacco several weeks after the offending tweet. She explained that she wasn’t trying to raise awareness of, or make fun of the AIDS epidemic in the third world. She was making fun of the bubble Americans often have with regard to the third world.

But social media is set up to strip context from events and content, which is particularly harmful when one tweet is taken from a timeline like Sacco’s, that was populated with edgy, often off-color jokes.

Ronson wrote:

Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit-by-bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers.

Indeed, it seems attention seeking causes so many problems in online forums. Whether it’s public shamers on Twitter or misogynists in Twitch’s chat, there are those out there that seek to whip crowds into a frenzy. With the short attention spans on social media, it could be difficult to ever eliminate this behavior.

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock.