Internet Witch Hunts and Social Media’s Tenuous Footing On a Morality-Based High Ground


Christmas is on a Wednesday this year. If we were all still in high school or middle school or elementary school—if we were all still children—this would be really exciting, because it would mean an extended vacation, an extra few days with no responsibilities, scholastic or familial. But we’re not children, are we? We’re adults. And so we work, some of us, even though there isn’t really all that much to do. And for those of who write for the Internet? Once we’ve exhausted our year-end recaps and holiday gift guides and best of-lists, what is left for us to do? Other than, you know, engaging in that most morally slippery of past times, “trial by social media.” Even then, once the career of a racist idiot is rather gleefully destroyed, what next? What is there to write about? Rent prices in north Brooklyn? Something related to hipsters? Wait. What’s that, New York Times Styles section? There’s an intra-generational millennial war brewing? Wow. It’s like Christmas came early for bloggers this year. Thanks, New York Times.

Except, wait. No. I refuse to take the bait, Styles section. I will be better than that. Let’s go back a minute to that whole “trial by social media”/Internet witch hunt thing, because, really, anything is more interesting than talking about millennials fighting with millennials, especially when they’re not even really fighting. Sorry, New York Times, but this is one blogger who is not reaching for that particular piece of low-hanging fruit. At least, not today. I’m not that desperate today. Possibly tomorrow. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that desperation is never all that far away. Professionally, I mean. Obviously. Anyway, the Internet.

Last Friday, the senior director of communications at IAC, Justine Sacco, sent an incredibly offensive, inexplicably stupid tweet before boarding a flight to South Africa. Sacco wrote: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco then boarded her 11-hour-long, WiFi-free flight having no idea that her tweet was going viral (aided by BuzzFeed and Valley Wag and, well, thousands and thousands of people on Twitter) or that she had lost her job while she was up in the air. Sacco has since apologized for the tweet in question (although not for her many, MANY other offensive tweets, including ones reading “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night. #fml” and “Someone get the rape kit ready for Tom Brady. Go Giants! #SuperBowl”) and has deleted her Twitter and Instagram accounts. And so we can all just move along now, secure in the knowledge that a racist twit was brought down by the immense power of the blogosphere/social media machine, and that good has persevered. Yay.

The problem with that, though, as many are pointing out today, is that there are much more problematic things in the whole Justine Sacco affair than just the idiocy of the origin tweet. In an essay on Flavorwire, Tom Hawking questions whether or not anything was actually accomplished by the Internet’s outrage at Sacco, and how—even if the anger at the tweet was justified, and even if her termination from her job is a reasonable response—nothing much has changed following this whole thing, except that a lot of people online feel morally superior to one, rather insignificant woman. Which, what kind of victory is that? A pretty hollow one when it comes right down to it. Part of the reason that Sacco’s tweet was so outrageous was because she is someone whose whole job is public relations, yet she has little to no comprehension of how best to, you know, relate to the public. Even so, there’s little doubt that this particular Internet pile-on was disproportionate to what Sacco actually tweeted. After all, the Internet is constantly bringing us all news of prominent people who advocate segregating the homeless or those who are totally blind to their white privilege, and instead think of it as “life hacking.” And, for that matter, Twitter is constantly bringing us borderline (and not even all that borderline) offensive and racially sensitive tweets by people who, as blogger Padraig Reddy points out, are not so different from Justine Sacco when it comes to their sense of humor, they’re just more famous, and therefore protected by their celebrity.

The thing about Sacco, though, is that she’s a nobody. And so it’s extremely easy to vilify her and think of her as just a bad person, allowing all of us, collectively, to think of ourselves as different from her, as good. But what makes us good? That we have the ability to identify something idiotic? That we haven’t done anything comparably bad ourselves? Or that we just haven’t done anything that bad in public? Internet witch hunts such as this one tend to thrive on a problematic (and false) dichotomy that presumes that everyone can be divided into categories of good and bad. When it’s put so simply as that, the lack of nuance inherent in this type of duality is so plain as to seem almost insulting, and yet so many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people are tempted to join in on attacking people like Sacco because…why? They’re eager to prove that they’re different? They’re eager to solidify their footing on a moral high ground built on the incredibly tenuous foundation of other people’s terrible behavior on social media? Unfortunately, it seems like that’s exactly the case. Many people do gravitate toward social media scandals like this so that they can jump on the finger-wagging bandwagon and—however briefly—feel better about themselves and perhaps even elevate their own sense of self-worth. But just like the Sacco uproar will prove to be a fleeting one that perhaps blew-up because it came during a slow news cycle, that newfound sense of self-worth that everyone has will also soon disappear. Until that is, some other idiot comes along saying some other idiotic thing, and we obsess over it, ignoring anything more complicated and interesting going on in the world, because at least when things are this simple and reductive, we can feel good about ourselves…if only for the brief span of a news cycle.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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