Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

jon-ronsonI remember when the whole universe seemingly exploded over Justine Sacco, the PR executive who Tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!!”

I was quick to jump on the worldwide bandwagon to publicly shame someone I did not know. “She got what she deserved” I remember telling myself as the young lady got off a flight in Cape Town to find her life in ruins: her job in New York gone, her reputation destroyed, her prospects in life shattered all because she’d made a silly joke.

At the time I joined the millions of people who shared in the pleasure of Justine Sacco’s public evisceration by everyone and their dog. I retweeted. I told my friends. I shamed her.

And yet, as British journalist Jon Ronson points out in his highly entertaining and thought-provoking book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the only real victim in this fiasco was Justine Sacco herself.

Apart from being offended by her Tweet, which via some quirk of fate, became a world-wide infamous sensation, no one at all was hurt or damaged by it.

Instead,  Justine Sacco suffered humiliation, depression and anxiety that went on for months and months. And worse, her tiny “moment of madness” lives on online. Just type in her name into Google and see for yourself.

Ronson’s entertaining and engrossing book (which reminded me of Louis Theroux) delves into many instances of public shaming – not all of them related to social media – as he explores what has become a re surging global phenomenon not seen for centuries.

Not only does he interview the victims of public shameings including Justine Sacco, but he also delves into the psychology of this mob-like behaviour, explores how Google’s search tools have created reputations that refuse to go away and speaks to people who have made a fortune out of resuscitating the personal reputations of those who have become infamous online. (Yes, there are companies that can get your name off page 1 of Google searches).

Justine Sacco

Among Ronson’s  “case studies” is the story of the down fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught out making up a Bob Dylan quote in a best-selling book  (in this case his public shaming felt quite deserving as Lehrer comes across as arrogant, privileged and above all…lazy) and that of Lindsey Stone who posted an irreverent (and frankly quite funny) photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, which destroyed her life in much the same way that it ruined Justine Sacco’s.


Then there’s the story of former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley, whose alleged S&M Nazi-style orgy was splashed all across the British tabloids in all its photographic detail.


Mosley’s case is perhaps the most fascinating (not least because he was the son of notorious British fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford) because he sued the Murdoch press for invasion of privacy and won in court.

The broader point Ronson makes is that Mosley – unlike other victims of publish shaming – was not embarrassed by his behaviour and instead became something of an anti-tabloid hero when took on the now defunct News of the World.

In the end I quite liked the feisty Max Mosley.

However, the greatest compliment I can pay Ronson is to say that reading his book changed my feelings about Justine Sacco tremendously.

Apart from revealing many mistruths about Sacco’s life (she was not the heiress to some rich businessmen or a spoilt white woman who didn’t care about others) it seemed awful that someone should be punished in vast disproportion to her crime, which at worse was that of making a silly, misinterpreted joke.

For as Ronson pointed out, within her Tweet, was the kernel of truth: AIDS is an epidemic in Africa that mainly affects black people not privileged white people. And that he says is the point Sacco was trying – albeit clumsily – to make.

As I read about Justine Sacco, the real Justine, I felt genuinely sorry for her and felt she deserved a lot of public sympathy and a chance at putting her lie back together. I also felt embarrassed at my glee at her public humiliation.

So I’d like to publicly apologise to Justine Sacco  for the part I played in ruining her life and thank Jon Ronson for writing his book.

And the next time I’m about to smugly retweet someone being torn to shreds on Twitter or mocked on Facebook for something silly or inadvertently in bad taste, I’ll think again before I click “Send” or “Post”.

Because the next time, it could be me on the receiving end.


4 thoughts on “Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

  1. Uh, I don’t agree with the overboard shaming. But let’s be real here. Justine is not a martyr. She made a dumb tweet and after the fact is trying to save face. To me her tweet ( no matter the intent) can be comparable to showing up to a party in black face. Whether you meant to tell a innocent joke or truly being racist it still is extremely insensitive and ignorant. I also find it funny that there are all kinds of Twitter mobbings on individuals who truly don’t deserve it. For instance Leslie Jones. Who was racially destroyed just for playing in a Ghostbusters movie. She didn’t do anything wrong. Yet, so many people in society stood behind the free speech narrative and phrase of “just take it”. Justine Sacco came out ok. She has another PR job with a prominent online company. She still has the opportunity that others who haven’t done or said anything remotely stupid can’t receive. I’m sorry she felt depressed. But if she is depressed about Twitter, the most of the troubled minority youths that I mentor need a 24 hour therapist. Father’s abandoning them. Mothers who are drugged out or just flat out don’t care. A society that automatically assumes they’re a threat. Yet these kids get no sympathy. They are told to just know better about life and deal with it, but this grown adult white woman who should’ve known better than to say something remotely racist is still benefiting from a societal privilege by getting a new job and receiving public sympathy. Twitter is a problem. I’ll admit that. Heck I don’t even have one. The bigger problem I see is that so many people are willing to use her as their poster child. She said that joke for attention. I’m not gonna feel sorry for someone because they got the wrong attention.


    1. Here are a couple of passages from Jon Ronson’s book that can be used to answer your criticisms:

      “Justine had been about three hours into her flight – probably asleep in the air above Spain or Algeria – when retweets of her tweet began to overwhelm my Twitter feed. After an initial happy little ‘Oh wow, someone is fucked’, I started to think her shamers must have been gripped by some kind of group madness or something. It seemed obvious that her Tweet, while not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a self-reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune to life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?
      “‘It was a joke about a situation that exists,’ Justine emailed. ‘It was a joke about a dire situation that does exist in post-apartheid South Africa, that we don’t pay attention to. It was a completely outrageous commentary on the disproportionate AIDS statistics. Unfortunately, I am not a character on South Park, or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform. To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS, or piss off the word, or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the Third World. I was making fun of that bubble.’
      “As it happens I once made a similar – albeit funnier – joke in a column for The Guardian. It was about a time I flew into the United States and was sent for ‘secondary processing’ (there was a Mafioso hit-man on the run at the time with a name that apparently sounded quite a lot like Jon Ronson). I was taken into a packed holding room and told to wait. [The joke was] ‘There are signs everywhere saying: “The use of cell phones is strictly prohibited.” I’m sure they won’t mind me checking my text messages, I think. I mean, after all, I am white.’
      “My joke was funnier than Justine’s joke. It was better worded. Plus, as it didn’t invoke AIDS sufferers it was less unpleasant. So: mine was funnier, better worded, and less unpleasant. But it suddenly felt like that Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter when Christopher Walken puts the gun to his head and lets out a scream and pulls the trigger and the gun doesn’t go off. It was to a large extent Justin’s fault that so many people thought she was a racist. Her self-reflexive sarcasm had been badly worded, her wider Twitter persona quite brittle. But I hadn’t needed to think about her tweet for more than a few seconds before I understood what she’d been trying to say. There must have been amongst her shamers a lot of people who chose to wilfully misunderstand it, for some reason.”

      – From pages 68 to 70.

      “Like Justine, I received a lot of e-mails the day the extract [of the book] was published [in The New York Times]. All of them were positive – people telling me they’d sent the story to their children as a warning against them Tweeting something that might be misconstrued. I understood why parents would want to do that, but it wasn’t the message I was going for. If anyone should change their behaviour, I thought, it ought to be those doing the shaming. Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt to me a little like ‘Don’t wear short skirts’. It felt like victim-blaming.”

      – From page 271.

      “Condemnation of my story [about Justine Sacco] began hesitantly at first, a little uncertain, like a consensus waiting for form: ‘The article did nothing but bring her back into the spotlight when we’d all moved on’, somebody tweeted. ‘Her dad is a billionaire,’ someone replied. ‘I’m not too worried about her.’ (Justine’s father isn’t a billionaire. He sells carpets.) ‘That tweet didn’t ruin her life,’ someone added. Justine Sacco has a new job. Give me a break already.’
      “‘After a YEAR,’ I thought when I read that one. ‘She finally got a full-time job after a YEAR.’ Nice people like us had effectively sentenced Justine to a year’s punishment for the crime of some poor phraseology in a tweet – as if some clunky wording had been a clue to her secret inner evil. The fact that she’d doggedly pulled things back together after a year was now being used as evidence that the shaming had been no big deal from the start.”

      From pages 273 to 274.


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