Thinking About the Dark Side of Social Media

the dark side of twitter
Last week when the Justine Sacco saga hit Twitter, I, like everyone else, was mortified by her tweet.  For 12 hours, I sat riveted by the hash tag created specifically for the episode: #HasJustineLandedYet. We all knew she was still in the air on a plane, venturing from England to South Africa, and we were also completely aware that she had not learned of the status of her tweet and its impact on the twitter community whilst traveling.

In case you’re new to this story (which I doubt you are, since you’re reading my blog and are clearly social media savvy), Sacco’s tweet read:  “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Before she would land in South Africa to news of her firing from InterActiveCorp as one of their publicists, there would be death threats and more, to the tune of what has been coined a lynch mob on Twitter.  I was also following comments on her Facebook and Instagram pages that night and came across one vile comment after another…even under photographs of her child.

There is no question that her tweet was stupid and racist, let me make that clear. To think that a publicist working for such a high-profile company (owner is Barry Diller) has such views and the audacity to post them (there were prior tweets in her stream that were Anti-Semitic, anti-rape victim, using the terrible word “retarded”, anti-abortion, anti-autism, sexist and more.  Check them out here.  I don’t condone her tweet AT ALL and I understand how people got angry.  I got angry. I assumed she was trying to be funny, but after the folks at Gawker and Buzzfeed discovered her tweet, her seemingly joke spread like fire and caused a serious outrage. None of us got her sense of humor, and in the end, she paid quite seriously for it.

But during the course of that evening, the wrath of the lynch mob intensified and it made me stop and think about what was happening and how Sacco was being crucified. When I made a mention about the reaction being quite intense, someone on Twitter pounced on me (The tweet read “How is it abuse?”) and believe me, I’m as liberal as they come.  I wasn’t condoning racism, but the responder seemed to think I was.

As it turns out, Sacco is from South Africa, and in her apology, her words were directed at the people of the country she had offended:

“Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. There is an Aids crisis-taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand. For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed. This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.”

Advocates for AIDS relief set up websites to encourage donations; one of the sites read, “The AIDS epidemic is bigger than a tweet from a person in PR. If we want real change, we need to think beyond Justine. Let’s turn that anger into something tangible.”

Someone quickly created JustineSacco.com and redirected the URL to AID for Africa to focus on the AIDS effort and turn the negative into a positive.

Since then I’ve been paying attention to further twitter lynch mobs as they seem to be an interesting phenomenom. Just today Ani DeFranco had another mob response to her poor decision to host a feminist retreat at a former slave plantation in Louisiana. A hash tag was created for opponents to express their anger at #RighteousRetreat and is coming in, once again, fast and furious.

And last week, Steve Martin accidentally tweeted a tweet that appeared as racist, but he quickly declared it as a joke and deleted it.  Like with Anthony Weiner’s accidental tweet of his private part, it was already too late. Martin was joking with fans when a follower asked him, “Is this how you spell lasonia?” Martin replied: “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?” But it spread like fire in that instant and caused him some humiliation and a quick response was given.

Again, I am not condoning Justine Sacco, Ani DiFranco or Steve Martin (though his apology was kind of genuine – he said he was always used to trying out material on audiences prior to use). I’m just not sure that either one thought carefully enough through their messaging and/or the results that would come their way if not careful enough. Like Sacco, Alec Baldwin also comes to mind as someone who used a slur and lost his job as a result (his show over on MSNBC).

Their bad decisions have most likely led to a seemingly very dark period of their lives, both personally and professionally, and it’s making me think about the dark side of Twitter. I have experienced it myself recently, albeit not with similar consequences and I can’t go into detail here, but I will say that it left me numb for a week or two after. Tweeting has not been the same since.

I adore Twitter.  It’s a place where I come face to face with like-minded individuals, where I can share my passions and interests, where I can express myself freely.

If the Justine Sacco affair has taught us anything, it has taught us to watch our words VERY carefully.  Apparently, Justine Sacco thought that her 200 followers would get a kick out of her crass humor…. well, they didn’t. Don’t make fun of a country…or an epidemic.  AIDS is a serious issue in Africa, and around the world.

If I’m hanging out on Twitter, I want to hang out with nice people.  I want people to express opinions and I want to have a conversation.

Here’s to 2014.


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  1. Really good wrap up. I didn’t know about the Ani DiFranco or example or the Steve Martin one. Like you though, I find the mob aspect just as worrisome, if not more, than an idiot here or there with an offensive tweet.

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