The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter’s outrage machine should be stopped. But Justine Sacco is the wrong poster child.

She's white, well-off and already has a new job. So why is Justine Sacco our poster child for victims of public shaming?

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files)

Recently, various media figures have grown obsessed with the phenomenon of mob-driven Internet harassment and public shaming. It has become popular to publicly criticize the mass outrage that erupts following social media gaffes and to pen 2,000-word apologies for one’s own contributions to “Internet vindictiveness.” Some writers have gone so far as to call Twitter pile-ons “online lynchings” and “digital lynch mobs.” The media’s martyr of choice is Justine Sacco, the public relations executive who became famous in 2013 for a tweet she winged off before boarding an 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time Sacco touched down in South Africa, her tweet had gone viral, and the globally trending hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet tracked the public’s movement from outrage to glee at the prospect of seeing her life in ruins. Her employer, IAC, fired her the next day.

Just over a year later, a campaign to rehabilitate Sacco is in full swing. Sacco herself is actually doing just fine – after a month atoning for her sins by volunteering in Ethiopia, she’s back in New York with a new PR job. Many of the people instrumental in bringing her tweet to public attention are now very sorry about the whole affair: “She deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be…give it all to her,” Gawker’s Sam Biddle wrote.

But why Sacco – and why now? Why are we making this person our go-to cautionary tale of how social media can derail careers, a case study in unjust persecution, and an inspiring narrative of image rehabilitation and forgiveness? There are far more vulnerable people who have been left to fend for themselves against cybermobs and Internet trolls.  Certainly, there was palpable misogyny to some of the abuse Sacco endured during her brief period in the spotlight. But other women have had it far worse. Feminist writers and activists like Jessica Valenti struggle to keep up public writing in the face of constant online attacks. Other writers, like Jaclyn Munson and Lauren Bruce, have been driven to withdraw from the Internet entirely. The vulnerability of women of color is even more intense: Prominent scholars like Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania face onslaughts of racist harassment just for speaking their minds. Outside of academia, activists like Jamia Wilson are targets of uniquely brutal and racially tinged abuse, and social critics like Feminista Jones must put up with attacks on a daily basis. Without minimizing the sting of Sacco’s public humiliation, I have to ask, why do so many people want her to be our poster child?

Let me be clear. I bear Justine Sacco absolutely no ill will. No one should have to face torrents of online vitriol and threats. But we should also acknowledge that the specter of mob persecution has historically meant – and continues to mean – grotesquely different things to different people. When Sacco’s supporters equate her experience of Internet pushback with lynching, they perpetrate a moral obscenity: a white executive losing her job and suffering damage to her reputation is categorically different from America’s bloody history of the public torture and extrajudicial execution of black men, women, and children. And we must also acknowledge that, even on the supposedly level playing field of the Internet, some people are profoundly more vulnerable than others: whether they are self-employed game developers, precariously employed academics, or just private individuals who blog. Those who do not have the financial means to rapidly change their addresses or pay for extra security measures are considerably more susceptible to threats from Internet stalkers than those who are better off or who have wealthy institutions — corporate or academic — that are willing to go to bat for them. So why do we draw the line at the case of Justine Sacco?

Let’s get real. Sacco is a sympathetic figure to media types because she’s a communications professional whose career (briefly) unraveled thanks to what they view as an idiotic mistake that anybody – including themselves – could make. Sacco and her defenders insist her tweet was ironic, a racist joke mocking racism itself, and that her words were taken out of context. Never mind that it’s hard to find humor in her tweet, which relies on misperceptions of Africa as a squalid, disease-ridden hellhole, and offers the fact that black life is cheap as a punchline. It’s also hard to see this as parody when plenty of folks make similar comments about Africa and AIDS, and mean it.

But even if we grant Sacco’s explanation that she was trying to be “ironic” – which many commentators seem willing to do as unreflectively as they were initially to take her seriously – the plain meaning of what she said still remains, resonates beyond her intentions, and amplifies the volume of an already corrosive discourse. That simply isn’t how words or symbols work; they mean what they mean regardless of intention. You may intend your Halloween blackface costume as an ironic mockery of racism, but that intention doesn’t undo the fact that the costume has a history, that it carries a hurt that no appeal to irony can negate.

Worse yet, the people who demand that we listen to Sacco clarify “what she meant to say” seem to think that she’s owed that audience. They insist we take her tweet “in context,” but they are highly selective about what context we ought to apply. They ignore the context that there are 25 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa living with HIV or AIDS, and that 63 percent of children orphaned in South Africa alone have lost parents to the disease. Instead, their only relevant context is that Justine Sacco is actually a very nice person. Sam Biddle, in particular, seems to be very struck by the fact that Sacco has … a face.

And about that face — it has a specific complexion and, for some people, it might as well be a mirror. Justine Sacco is a sympathetic figure because she’s a 30-something, well-educated, relatively affluent white woman. On a level that resonates with some of the ugliest of America’s racist narratives, the blonde Sacco is archetypally vulnerable – the damsel to be rescued from a rampaging mob. These people imaginatively identify with Sacco’s rapid fall from grace, thinking “There but for the grace of God (or a keystroke) go I.”

That anxiety resonates widely. Reading Jon Ronson’s profile of Sacco it’s easy to see how we’re encouraged to empathize with her. Like anybody else in an era of Internet anomie, we’re told Sacco just wanted some attention, and thought she was speaking to people who knew her and her sense of humor. But, of course, she wasn’t: Twitter is a public medium, and Sacco’s assumption that her audience would be exclusively whom she chose it to be, and no more, bespeaks the same sense of entitlement that’s present in the demand that we now have to learn about “the real” Justine Sacco.

In a rapidly changing America, it’s understandable that many white Americans worry that people who are not in their normal social set might overhear and misunderstand something we would otherwise be more circumspect about saying. That anxiety is earnest – but it is also a sign of privilege. Because the reality is that these recourses — appealing to irony, context, intentions, and who you really are — are not equally available to all. They are luxuries, prerogatives of race and class, much like second chances or even having an individual “face” to lose in the first place. Meanwhile, we seem unable to tolerate the proposition that Sacco can be both a victim and a perpetrator, or that we can both condemn public shaming on the Internet and decline to endorse Sacco as its poster child. We likewise seem unable to both denounce the abuse Sacco received for its misogyny and to hold her to account for her racist “joke.”  More broadly, we seem incapable of acknowledging that criticizing white feminists who victimize feminists of color can be compatible with condemning harassment by Men’s Rights activism for the misogynistic terrorism it is.

The upshot is that we need a more nuanced conversation about shaming in general. From schoolrooms to sidewalks, we rely on shame to enforce norms about gender, race, class, and more. Shame is an integral part of how we put people in their place. Certainly, public shaming on Twitter is a pressing problem. But it intersects with long-established everyday pressures, online and off, that include exclusion, marginalization, and outright violence – and those pressures have different effects on different people. Any conversation about an out-of-control Internet outrage machine that ignores that context is part of the problem. To the extent that our conversation about public shaming is reduced to bemoaning the indignities suffered by well-off white people who say stupid and odious things in public, we are morally impoverished. Before we start shaming each other for shaming, let’s at least pick a better poster child.

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