Jon Ronson has an adaptation excerpt from his latest book age out public shaming in the digital age. It primarily revolves around Justine Sacco, who you might remember as sending out that racist/unfunny Tweet.
The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc.
By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke.
For the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.
At the time, I wrote about why Sacco’s Tweet wasn’t the worst part about the whole affair (and was subsequently quoted in the New York Times, when they wrote about this same issue): I was horrified by the reactions to it – and, mainly, how she was targeted by those with much larger platforms.
There’s an ethical dimension many haven’t considered with platforms and engagements: It’s difficult and tricky areas. I engage publicly on social media with people, quite often – but always with people who have anonymous accounts and aren’t traceable in any way. I don’t even try show up legitimate problematic individuals, unless they are threatening the livelihood and safety of others: if it’s just some loser Gamergater or MRA, I tend to just block, though inform others of the individual.
The point is it’s tricky and it should be tricky. Shaming shouldn’t be as easy as a Retweet, but it is and that’s dangerous. Platform holders like the Buzzfeed editors and Gawker’s Sam Biddle who thrive on public shaming deserve severe ethical scrutiny for their work and conduct.
Indeed, Sacco isn’t the one who should be ashamed; it’s those with major platforms who decided to draw the world’s attention to her, for her innocuous and clearly outrageous Tweet.